I think one of the things that has always annoyed me about Rapunzel stories is that everything that happens to her is forced upon her. She’s seldom a vessel for agency: she’s bartered away by her parents for radishes or bitter greens or whatever-vegetable-takes-your-fancy; she’s locked in a tower and turned into a companion who knows nothing of the world; the prince turns up and takes advantage of her; she ends up as a single mother thrown out of the only home she’s known and wandering.
What I wanted for my Rapunzel was choice. I wanted her to make decisions instead of being tossed around by everyone else’s needs and wants. I wanted her to be someone who didn’t acquiesce all the time, who wasn’t an appeaser. I wanted her to have agency; so she chose the tower. She chose a quiet life. The witch in the tale has no vested interest in Rapunzel, she’s not a lonely old hag, and she becomes a friend. The prince, like most princes, is something of a putz, but he gets punished and by the end I like to think he’s learned his lesson.
And Rapunzel is not sweet and neat. She does a terrible thing on the spur of the moment, all clothed in rage. And she has to deal with the consequences of her actions and her life. Her son is called ‘twice-born’, which links him to the king in “The Shadow Tree” … it’s obvious he’s not grown up well despite his parents’ lessons … I sort of felt that the anger and the bitterness that accompanied his conception were always going to show out at some point.
This story was first published at Crimson Highway back in 2008; it was only when I was writing the other stories that would eventually become Sourdough and Other Stories that I realised it fit into that cycle, though it is the only tale amongst them that has a direct link to a known fairy tale.
All I ever wanted was the tower.
I dreamt of it when night coloured the sky. When the sun threw yellow light over everything, I would lose myself in daydreams of the silence of stone resting upon stone. Since I was small, the thought of it had been with me.
There was no tower near my home. Not even a castle. We lived so deep in the woods there were only cottages scattered here and there. Neighbours were few and far between: woodsmen; old women deserted by their families, despised and feared; brigands; folk who simply liked the quiet of the woods.
My mother loved radishes beyond reason, so it’s only proper that I should have a mania all of my own.
I lived in quietude, but I longed for utter silence. I imagined a stillness like nothing else, held in by granite, a barrier that nothing could penetrate. I desired air untroubled by the vibrations of sound, a vacuum through which nothing could pass.
My parents did not understand. Distance grew between us. We could sit in the same room yet not speak, not touch, not even breathe in time. They gave up trying to communicate with me and I happily wrapped myself in the fabric of nothing, of utter quiet. My siblings delighted in making noise, rough and tumble like puppies. I would flee to the forest to sit and eat the stillness.
When I was sixteen I wandered from home. I would, I thought, find the tower – it must be there, I could not simply have imagined it. Whatever it cost me, I would find it, for that was where I belonged.
I spent four days lost before I stumbled into a clearing. An old cottage sat, like a creature waiting for something to come; perhaps it wanted prey, perhaps company. Hunger and thirst propelled me and I fell against the door with a cry, crumpling to the stoop.
An old woman peered down at me. A walking stick held her upright. She wore a dress that had once been the colour of dark leaves but had been washed back to a faded green, a cap, and an apron stained with yellows and reds. Her glasses were smudged and she wrinkled her nose to move them back into position on her face.
‘Who are you?’ she croaked. She cleared her throat and tried again, the sweet timbre restored. ‘Sorry. Who are you?’
‘Rapunzel,’ I replied. She smiled.
‘Is your mother the one who’s nuts about radishes?’
I nodded wearily.
‘Come in. I’m Sybille.’
She fed me thick, buttery cheese with stodgy bread and gave me tea to drink. When I had finished wolfing it all down, we spoke.
‘So, what are you looking for, little radish girl?’
‘A tower. The tower. The one I’ve dreamt of my whole life.’
‘No towers around here,’ she answered.
‘Then I’ll keep walking until I find one.’
She sighed and got to her feet. A bookcase leaned haphazardly against one of the walls; she shuffled over, grabbing a thin tome from the warped shelves.
‘There used to be one. Don’t know if it’s still there. Some years ago it became invisible after some nasty business with a king not paying his due to a wise woman.’
‘Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t,’ she hedged, pointing her finger at me. ‘Any road, there is a tower there for the taking. As you seem determined, you may as well have it.’
‘How do I find it if I can’t see it?’
‘Hold your horses, missy. Always in a hurry, young women.’ She clucked her tongue, opened the book, and flicked through it, running a finger down each page and muttering “nope” as she reached the bottom. After a time she gave an ‘ah ha’.
‘You’ll need the key, of course,’ she said and plucked one, ungainly and a little rusty, from the back of the ragged book. ‘Now, walk north for three hours and when you bump into something you can’t see, then you’re there.’
‘Say this: tower fair you seem not there, take pity on this girl and your glory now unfurl. That should do the trick.’
‘And if I should want it invisible again?’ I asked and she rolled her eyes.
‘Then – and make sure you’re inside first or you’ll have to mess about making it visible again so you can find it – say: tower clear and tower bright, fold yourself back into night.’ She rolled a lump of bread and cheese in a cloth and handed it to me. ‘I’ll come see you sometime.’
She pulled two small, carved stones from her pocket and held them out.
‘If you need anything, send the cat or the raven. Blow on them and say ‘bid your mistress come to me’. Sometimes you might want the cat for company, so blow and say ‘malkin black or malkin white, bring thy company into my sight’. He’ll sit around for as long as you want. To send him back try ‘malkin black or malkin white, get thy company from my sight.’
‘I’m not a witch,’ I said.
‘You’re a woman, aren’t you?’
I had to agree. I gave my thanks and was on my way. She watched me until I disappeared into the trees and, I suspect, for a long while after that.