The Strangled Heart

Writing Prompt: Fairy Tales from a Different Point-of-View

StrangledHeart

The blood rites were finished, the words of power chanted, and the potion prepared. A drop a day would save the afflicted babe, but Ana felt ravaged from the inside out. This spellwork had stolen years of her life, but what alternative did she have? If she did nothing, she might as well murder the baby herself.

The sobbing parents arrived at dusk, motivated, Ana assumed, by fear. Everyone feared Dame Ana Gothel, and Ana bore the loneliness without complaint because the alternative was chaos. Her words of power would be used to kill, her runes to imprison, her magic plants to plague and poison.

No one else remained to protect the Walled Garden from men.

When the miserable couple reached the edge of her verdant estate, the mother’s sobs matched her babe’s. The smell of rotting leaves rolled off this mother, the stench of despair. Ana understood despair – she understood the pain of losing her only child – but this mother would not see her child die.

The father stank of frustration and regret, the stench of a bog mixed with the smell of iron and blood. He blamed Ana for this, of course, but Ana’s focus remained on the babe, on the squalling her parents assumed was natural. It most certainly was not. This babe was in agony, spiky roots tightening around her heart.

The mother wailed and clutched her newborn daughter to her breast. “Why must you steal our child, Dame Gothel? How have we wronged you?”

“The babe was never yours.” Ana maintained the stately pose she had cultivated to hide doubt and pain.

“I carried her!” the mother wailed. “I birthed her!”

“If you believe our bargain unfair, your quarrel is with your husband.” It was the greed of this father, after all, that sentenced his child to death.

“A bargain is a bargain.” The father motioned, impatiently, to the mother. “Give her the child, Nan.”

His emotions now smelled like spoiled oranges – guilt. Ana knew then he had not told his wife what the stolen rampion had done to their child in her womb. Men like him did not admit fault.

“All we took was a plant!” the mother wailed. “Why must I trade my child for a plant?”

“Ask your husband.” Ana stared at the man until his eyes fell.

“You’ll kill her!” the mother shouted. “You’ll sacrifice her in some blood rite! I won’t let you!”

“Your daughter dies already. Do you not hear the truth in her cries?”

The mother gasped. “You ensorcelled my child?”

“The rampion you stole from my garden did that. The plant you so foolishly gorged upon is strangling your child’s heart.”

“That can’t be true!” The mother’s eyes welled as she glared at her husband. “Eddard! Tell me it isn’t true!” The smell of her betrayal hung on the air, sickly and sweet.

The father’s downcast eyes damned him more than any word from Ana ever could. Ana stared at the mother. She stared at the dying babe. And with one more sniffle, that babe was hers.

* * *

Fortunately for young Rapunzel — named, Ana decided, for the enchanted rampion wrapped around her tiny heart — drops of Ana’s potion slowed the plant’s growth and kept the baby alive. As years passed and the babe grew into a young girl, who grew into a young woman, Ana began to hope this child — her child, now, because she could no longer think of little Rapunzel as anyone else — would one day venture beyond the Walled Garden. If Ana could find some way to unwind those hungry roots from her heart.

The answer came on a fresh spring day, Rapunzel’s twelfth birthday. As Ana helped her daughter trim the ivy choking their garden’s walls, she saw its true nature. Tendrils around Rapunzel’s heart.

As ivy grew in the direction of water and light, so might the roots of the hungry rampion. Ana could not destroy the rampion, but she could lead its growth elsewhere. Ana would coax the magical plant out through her daughter’s brilliant blond hair.

That night, after Rapunzel slept, Ana returned to her mother’s tower. She carved, and scribed, and chanted, sacrificing decades of her life so her daughter might one day be free of the rampion curse. Ana knew when she was done, breathless and quivering with pain, that this blood enchantment would draw the rampion out of her daughter — but only if Rapunzel remained in the tower until the healing was complete.

Given enough years in this enchanted tower, the roots strangling her daughter’s heart would grow into luxurious blond hair, strong as hemp rope and long as the ivy clinging to the Walled Garden’s stones. Why strangle a heart when you could spread your blond roots, drinking in sweet sunlight and fresh air?

Ana would not live forever, certainly not as long as Rapunzel, not now. She had sacrificed so much of her life, and when she died, who would conjure the potion that kept the rampion from strangling her daughter’s heart? This tower was her only daughter’s salvation.

Some day, Ana would make Rapunzel understand.

* * *

The moon was bright when the prince climbed the strong blond curls that had once strangled Rapunzel’s heart. When he saw Ana waiting for him, he almost fell right off the tower, and Ana was sorely tempted to let him fall. He was the reason her daughter hated her.

“Dame Gothel!” The prince’s eyes narrowed as his hand brushed his sword hilt. “Where is Rapunzel?” Like all outsiders, his first solution to conflict was violence.

“Not here,” Ana said.

“Foul enchantress! What have you done with her?”

“I haven’t made her pregnant, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I’d never…” the prince began, but his flush gave him away. “We didn’t … we only…”

“Rapunzel is gone, you fool.” The air shimmered as the rage Ana restrained writhed inside her. “She hates me, and will always hate me, but she is now free.” This prince had filled Rapunzel’s head with lies, seduced her, used her, but he would not kill her. “You will never see her again.”

“You imprisoned her!” The prince pointed an accusatory finger. “You kept her in this tower against her will!”

“I saved her life, foolish boy.” Ana’s grief and despair smashed against her mental gates, shaking the tower and forcing the prince a step back. “I loved her, protected her, taught her, and now you have poisoned her heart against me. Yet you failed to kill her. I stopped that.”

“What do you mean? Why would I kill her?”

“If you had dragged her from this tower before her healing was complete, the decades I’ve sacrificed would be wasted. I sheared Rapunzel’s fatal curse from her head this morning, even as she shrieked at my cruelty and demanded her release. I love her, I will always love her, and so I set her free.”

Rapunzel’s curses and threats had ruined Ana worse than rampion around her own heart, strangling, crushing, feeding. There was no pain like the hate of one’s own daughter.

“Where is she?” the prince demanded.

“Why do you care? You’ve already sown your wild oats.”

“I love her, Dame Gothel!” The sincerity of his emotions rolled off the prince in waves. “We are betrothed!”

His love was the smell of cherry blossoms in bright spring, a fresh rain on clean grass. It might not ease Ana’s grief, but it could ease Rapunzel’s. “Prove it.” Could Ana save her daughter one last time?

“I will do anything to find her. Anything! Please, help me.”

The prince craved magic. They all craved magic, just like Rapunzel’s birth mother craved that stolen rampion. So be it. Ana was done protecting these fools from the garden’s magic, done sacrificing her life for people who feared and hated her. Her own daughter had cursed her and left her alone, to die.

Ana clapped her hands and said the words.

Where once a prince stood now flapped a bird, small and blue and chirping with outrage. As Ana approached, it fluttered and squawked around the room. Ana spoke loud enough for the bird to hear.

“Fly to your Rapunzel, little prince. Fly far. If you truly love her, and if you can find her, her touch will restore your form. Find your betrothed and bring her, and her child, the happiness I never could.”

The transformed prince fluttered to the window sill, glanced back. Then he was off and flying before Ana’s legs gave out, before she collapsed on the cold stone floor, exhausted. Her life drained.

Dame Ana Gothel would never see another sunrise. She had given everything for Rapunzel, and now her tower, her garden, and her legacy would crumble to dust. She would die alone, wrapped in her daughter’s hate, but Rapunzel would live on with her prince, happy and alive.

If Ana left nothing else to the world that hated her, she left that.

THE END

 

About the Story:

This theme was incredibly similar to that of Fairly Wicked Tales, the anthology of twisted Grimm fairytales that published my short story “Rum’s Daughter”, so I was initially a bit unsure where to go with this one. I’d already twisted one fairytale into knots (Rumplestiltskin!) and no others jumped out at me as obvious propaganda from the winning side of a conflict.

That changed when I read the wikipedia entry for Rapunzel, specifically some of the older versions and variations. Pretty much immediately, I knew that Dame Gothel had been on the wrong side of history, maligned and misunderstood, and a much different version of the Rapunzel tale popped into my brain. At that point, all I had to do was write it down.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/7156765@N05/24572547029″>Spokane Washington ~ Spokane County Courthouse ~ Central Tower</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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Everything in Frame

Writing Prompt: Dystopia

MineShaft

As the two clean-suited enforcers marched me through from the exit pod into the magnificent bright, I considered my inevitable death. I’d never seen the sun before — none of us had, other than in videos the director showed on weekends — and I had never seen anything so bright or beautiful. I couldn’t even look at it, not directly, and I longed to feel its heat on my skin. Assuming Gurney was right.

Stalks of grass greener than any green I’d ever seen swayed in the gentle wind, rising to my thighs. They brushed against the legs of my clean-suit as they brushed the round, rusted domes of the exit pod. That pod and the long elevator shaft inside it was the only link between Sanctuary Twelve and the surface world.

I took a long look at the world the Overseer had assured me would kill me, the world his oldest and most trusted servant, Gurney Maynard, had assured me would not. I had to act shocked, because this world did not match the dead plains the Overseer showed us so often below. I felt one enforcer push his staff into the small of my back.

“Move,” the enforcer said.

“Or what?” The head part of my clean-suit wouldn’t turn to look back at him, but I didn’t need to look back to express my disdain. “You’ll execute me twice?

A holo screen flashed in front of me. It was a recording of my son, now thirteen and wiry, as he worked beside the others dredging energy fragments out of the deep shafts. The enforcer made it disappear.

The threat was obvious, and I walked without another push from the enforcer’s staff. I’d already taken steps to ensure the Overseer could never punish Matty for what I was about to do, but I couldn’t let him know that. I had to act like another outspoken problem marching to my inevitable comeuppance.

The outside world was poison without a suit — the sun, the grass, the air — and questioning that was the only way one escaped the drudgery of the crystal mines. We were safe in the mines, the Overseer assured us. We lived by his grace, his generosity. Everyone outside Sanctuary Twelve was doomed.

Soon the enforcers marched me to a clearing, a down swept field of brown stalks crushed beneath dozens of robotic feet, likely less than a day ago. After they poisoned the grass. That streak of death sat in stark contrast to the simple beauty around us. It was a naked, pus-filled scar on a glistening grass plain, but that was the advantage of a narrow camera lens. You could focus on so little and block out so much.

The Overseer had constructed a fake exit pod at the top of the descending plain of dead grass, and I recognized that pod and the dead field from the videos I had seen of the others who dared question the Overseer. People who insisted the world above was alive and safe, like me. Murdered people.

The enforcers would force me inside that dome and strip me of my clean-suit, with dire warnings of what would happen if I went outside. When they were ready for me to make my entrance, they would pump the pod full of something noxious – tear gas? Toxic fumes? – until my heaving gut and shriveled lungs forced me to stumble out of the front door, into the camera frame.

Then I would die. Then my fellow miners would watch as I shrieked, and burst into flame, and melted. They would watch my seared bones pop, my body brutalized by the poisonous world above.

“The outside world is death,” the Overseer would repeat, as those below averted their faces from my melting body. “The claims of Worker 542 are as false as all those before them. Only I protect you.”

They marched me inside the dome, just like Gurney had said they would, and they stripped off my clean-suit, just like Gurney had said they would. All I wore now was my light gray mining jumpsuit, and the air inside the rusting pod was stagnant. I longed to feel the sun on my skin, a cool breeze on my face.

The sun wouldn’t melt my skin, and the grass wouldn’t melt my jumpsuit, and breathing this wonderful air would not shrink and ruin my lungs. Those horrors would instead be caused by the weapons of the Overseer, hidden out of frame. Microwaves. Heat rays. Infrared. I did not know what those words meant, what Gurney had envisioned when he said them, but I knew they offered invisible death.

I waited until the Overseer’s voice echoed through the rusty pod. His voice was pumped up to the surface so the enforcers could hear it, so they could pump in the gas at the proper time. The Overseer was speaking, now, which meant the feed was “live”, as Gurney had called it. Time for me to die.

I burst out of the front of the rusting pod.

That was the difference between me and the other victims, you see — Gurney’s betrayal of the Overseer, the clarity provided by a cancer no Overseer medicine could cure, and the death of the Overseer’s leverage. Gurney’s daughter. Those events conspired to make my death different.

The enforcers had done this a dozen times before. Place the victim in the rusting pod, set up the weapons and the camera, check the camera angle, and then, and only then, pump in the gas. All happened only after the Overseer set the stage, said a few haunting words for this poor deluded fool.

No miner raised as I’d been would voluntarily burst from their safe haven, but I had, before anyone planning to murder me was ready. The outside world felt wonderful. For the first time I felt the gentle heat of the sun on my skin, a cool breeze rushing over my cheeks. Nothing melted. Nothing burned.

That was the other thing victims of the Overseer couldn’t do — run — because when your lungs were full of tear gas you made a very slow, very easy target. I was no easy target. I zigzagged down that field of dead grass toward the small, round ball sitting at its end. Toward what I knew was the camera.

I saw the now panicked overseers struggling to set their weapons up, to bring them to bear — they were mounted, I saw now, on complicated tripods which were still being arranged — and for a moment, I pondered grabbing a weapon. Yet I was not here to kill anyone, and any overseer was easily replaced. I reached the round black dome as the first overseer grounded his tripod and readied his weapon.

“Look at me!” I shouted into the camera. “I’m alive! The world above isn’t killing me! They are!”

I struggled to rip the camera from its mount, but it remained stuck tight. I heard a loud hum and then I felt heat that seared my skin and bubbled my eyeballs. The air was so hot I couldn’t even scream, yet I didn’t die — not immediately — and my rage gave me the strength to turn the lens, not up and out of the ground, as I planned, but sideways. Toward the green fields and the enforcers with their weapons.

Even as invisible death set my skin afire I heard the Overseer shouting over the speakers, not to his enforcers, but to those below. His desperate explanations fell on deaf ears. Gurney had whispered to those below as well, and all they needed to start their riot was proof. My death was that proof.

The boiling heat ended at last, perhaps because the enforcer knew better than to waste power, or perhaps because he heard the masses rioting below and knew that running was better than facing those he’d help imprison. None of it made any difference to me. I drank in the feel of that cool breeze.

I wished I could see the sun and touch the grass, stroke my son’s face one last time, but I was too busy dying. Had I succeeded? Gurney’s crackly voice echoed over the Overseer’s intercom.

“We did it!” Gurney shouted, as my people cheered. “You gave us the truth! You gave us the whole world! We’re free now, all of us!” The cacophony faded as Gurney faded, as he called for silence.

“Thank you,” he said, voice trembling over the speakers. “We’re coming up. We’ll see you soon.”

They wouldn’t. No one would reach me in time to save me, but I didn’t mind. Matty would grow up breathing this clean air, living beneath this warm sun, sleeping in this soft grass. After decades of slavery, it seemed absurd that our freedom required nothing more than a camera, twisted sideways, but that was the beauty of it.

All it took to free us was one traitor. One sacrifice. And one perfect camera angle, everything in frame.

 

About the Story:

Initially, I struggled with the dystopia prompt. I’ve read so many good dystopias that I had trouble thinking of anything that didn’t feel derivative, and nothing initially jumped out at me. Oddly enough, this rather dark story was partly inspired by a much lighter (but similarly dystopian) story – the ending of Portal 2, or one small element of it.

(Spoilers for Portal 2 Follow)

At the end of Portal 2, GLADOS releases you, her test subject, back into the “real world”. You ride an elevator (serenaded by singing turrets, of course) up to the surface, a seeming paradise filled with tall, flowing grass. You enter that paradise all alone, with no civilization in sight, and the ending is a bit melancholy in that respect.

(Spoilers for Portal 2 End)

Although it is never explicitly stated, the implication of both Portal games is that whatever happened to damage the Aperture Science laboratories also did great damage to the world. Either the vast majority of humanity was wiped out, or have vanished entirely. On the positive side, in the years that followed the world has been “reborn”, having returned to the pristine state in which it existed before industrialization.

The idea of someone who had been below ground for a long time emerging on the surface of an empty, pristine inspired this story. From there, all I had to develop was a protagonist, an antagonist, and their conflict, as well as creating a suitably dystopian situation for my protagonist to struggle against.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/40243520@N02/11230150485″>Empire Mine Shaft</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;