Fairest of Them All
A thigh slightly wider than the other, a map of freckles upon white skin, and a dot of pink promising a pimple yet to emerge; these were the features she saw while staring into the gilded frame. The flaws-her individual demons-all maintained the same purpose: to cripple her. These demons fed off her anxiety, her tendency towards self-deprecation and her lacking sense of stability regarding who she was.
Who she was, that was the question that haunted her, keeping her mind whirring and spinning into the late hours of the night. Those hours when she’d stare at the patch of moonlight shining in through the rectangular window and wonder whether this would all last. Some days she felt as though she were walking upon a floor of shattered glass, meticulously calculating every step, lest she wish to feel the prick of pain that would send a river of blood crashing over each translucent piece.
Once that happened, there would be no going back. The glass, sparkling and ethereal under the dome of light above, would be forever tainted. No amount of scrubbing would return it to its previous state of magnificence. And even if the red stains could be removed, the moment when the glass was marked would still exist. The reality of the glass’s vulnerability and ability to be marred would be unforgettable.
She wished she could go back to a time when these demons didn’t niggle at her. Such a time, however, was difficult to pinpoint. She knows there must have been one. She couldn’t have possibly suffered these demons as a child. Then again, perhaps she had. Her earliest memories began from when she was a girl of seven years.
A fresh orphan, she could recall the reflection of a woman with ivory skin and dirty-blonde hair. Her eyes, a piercing sapphire, gazed critically upon the child seated atop a red velvet cushion before the shimmering gold vanity. Her coral lips parted, hissing the word ‘again,’ as she roughly coiled her fingers around the strands of raven locks the child had so carefully been weaving. A small cry passed the young girl’s rosy lips as the feeling of the Queen’s hands, tearing at the strands of hair, sent a sharp pain resonating against her scalp.
Once she had successfully dislodged the few plaits the girl had managed to create, the Queen dropped the locks as if they were deadweights, and shoved the silver comb back into the girl’s clammy palms. It took the girl eight more tries before the Queen was satisfied with the plaited crown.
“A woman’s hair is her most distinguishable feature. It helps define whether she will be seen as beautiful and treated with reverence, or ugly and treated with disdain. Your own mother would have taught you that were she not deceased,” the Queen had said before leaving the girl to gaze miserably at her accomplishment, the dark fibers still prickling with surges of pain.
The next memory was from when she was nine, seated upon the settee, gazing out the stone slats of window at the scattering swarm of children below. The children all belonged to the countless families of castle servants. Being the princess, she scarcely knew any of their names, yet, she longed for nothing more than to be amongst them. To be chasing after that boy in the tattered shirt that appeared more gray than white, with her hands covered in dirt, and her hair billowing freely behind in knotted wisps. Nothing seemed more welcoming than to feel as though she belonged somewhere-that she had friends she could trust, who saw and accepted her for who she truly was.
Instead, she was forced to watch the children’s games from above, unable to hear anything but their squeals of joy and pitched laughter, launching up to her like a ball sailing towards the sky. Her only company being the lingering words spoken moments ago by the Queen.
“You’re a princess, Snow White. Princesses do not associate with servants,” the Queen had said tartly, her lips, emanating a mauve shade that day, forming each word clearly, as if she were speaking to an inept peasant.
“But why not? Why can’t I play outside, even by myself?” Snow White had pressed, desperate to find some way out of the desolate, stone castle.
“Because you would become covered by the filth of nature, no different than those lowly peasants. Your white skin blotched with spots of dirt, and your shining hair tangled up in a nest of twigs. You must not let such things, even temporarily, mask your beauty. It is one of your greatest sources of power, and without it, you are nothing,” the Queen explained before turning with a gesture of finality towards the set of double doors.
The final memory was from when she was thirteen. Snow White had been standing in the throne room, commanded to observe as the Queen held court.
“One day this will be your duty,” she had told Snow White before making her way gracefully towards the towering, spindle-backed throne.
She had been watching all morning the way the Queen sat, poised, her fingers clasped in her lap and back straight, as her sapphire eyes cast over the sea of lined-up subjects vying for her attention. One, a broad man whose muscles constricted behind the scarlet shirt he wore as he stepped forward with a slight limp, particularly struck her. The man was at least twice the Queen’s age, though the comeliness of youth still held a firm presence in his features. Judging by the Queen’s slight change in demeanor-once insipidly enduring, now brightly alert-as well as the evident limp, Snow White guessed he was a retired knight.
She listened as the man brought forth his grievance. Two days ago, one of the Queen’s guards informed him that two acres of the four he’d acquired by faithfully serving the king were to be confiscated. It was clear that the once-knight was livid, as he fixed accusatory eyes upon the Queen. Briefly, Snow White pondered how the Queen would possibly appease this aggrieved man. However, in the end, a flutter of eyelashes and a sweetly spoken entreaty that the confiscation was needed solely for its fertile land to provide more food for the hungry peasants won the man over. Promising, as she absently wound a dirty-blonde curl around her index finger, to secure him new land in compensation for what he had lost, the man had graciously bowed before departing.
As Snow White watched the exchange, the way the Queen had subtly drawn the man’s attention to her beauty in order to pacify him, she felt a sudden plummeting in the pit of her stomach. It was as if someone had dropped a jagged stone inside her that would forever inhabit and multiply. At the time, she hadn’t been able to comprehend the stone’s meaning. Now, though, being the Queen herself, she knew that stone had been symbolic, marking the arrival of her relentless demons.
As she now pressed a lock of hair, curling it around the edge of her ear, her eyes settled upon her stomach. She sucked in a deep breath and held it for as long as she could, watching with morbid fascination as her stomach constricted, forming the flat plane she so desired. Even with the Queen gone, she could never shake the life lessons the woman had taught her. As much as her husband strove to convey the falsity behind those lessons, saying things like, “she taught you how to be the type of Queen she was, not the type of Queen you are,” she knew he simply didn’t understand.
How could he, being a king, a man? In this world men ruled. No matter how many times he consulted her on decrees, strategies, and decisions, in the end he was the one that held the power. The people listened to him, looked to him to solve their calamities. All she had to do was sit, poised beside him with a supportive smile spread across her lips. Her subjects, it seemed, looked to her as a silent goddess. Someone they respected, because her beauty gave the appearance of strength, womanly strength, that is.
She was Helen of Troy, someone worth fighting for, but never truly looked to when concerning matters of intellectuality. If she didn’t maintain this beatific image, how would she ever be able to reign as queen? Her subjects would look at her only with disdain, and if, God forbid, the day arose when she was forced to take her husband’s place, the kingdom would surely fall. The only way the Queen had merited respect was through her beauty. She knew the power possessing such assets held, and had been willing to kill Snow White in order to ensure her own power remained unchallenged.
As she allotted herself one last glimpse in the mirror, a sigh passed from her lips. Her demons were still ranting and raving, crying out each flaw. However, for the moment, she was satisfied enough to stifle them. For the moment, she was safe. The King was wrong. The Queen hadn’t been teaching her how to be a queen; she’d been teaching her how to be a woman.
Marianne Brennan is a senior at Ramapo College of New Jersey majoring in Literature with a minor in Psychology. She is a member of Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, yoga, and hiking. Her future pursuits include earning her master’s in Library Science, and traveling to Italy.