Rapunzel

A Re-Winding

Joan Stewart

 

 

A woman tended her home and garden, and followed the common customs of the time in the common way, yet she found herself gazing more and more at the uncommon walls of thick old stone surrounding the land of the old woman right beside her.  Surely, they held something marvelous, but she didn’t dare approach the small, formidable figure swathed in black which sometimes in the early morning came out of the woods, tended to mysterious business within those walls, and then with the setting sun walked back into the woods.

Well.  When she was back in those woods, how was she to know who was peering over her wall?  The woman put up a ladder, climbed to the top, and looked.  The whole of the place was a garden, and it was indeed breathtaking.  Wondrous.  It pulled at her invitingly.  Well.  How would the old woman know who was in her garden?  She slid over the wall and went softly down winding mossy pathways, wide-eyed with wonder, until she reached the very center, where a single shining plant of rapunzel flourished, encircled by briars.  The plant’s tall stalk was split into two sinuously entwining spires.

As in a dream, the woman threaded her way through the thorns and caressed the plant.  She took a leaf and ate it and a fresh green blaze ran through her.  She began eating right off the plant, until she was overtaken by the feeling the plant wanted no more taken.  She sighed, full of live greenness, lay down softly, and fell asleep at the plant’s roots.

She little remembered waking and leaving, but afterwards she could see the garden in her mind’s eye, as clearly as if it were live before her, and it changed with the passage of time.  She would shiver when through those living images a glimpse of the old woman would pass, each time closer to the rapunzel – as it’s brilliant blue flowers faded, as its petals fell, until finally, as it began to set seed, she could see the old woman holding its stalk and looking at it with a smile…

 

One day the woman realized she was going to have a child, and as the time for birth approached, the garden in her mind became more vivid.  And in it one day there was the old woman watching the seed stalk as it opened and let fall two seeds.  The old woman let one fall to the ground, and caught the other in the palm of her hand.  She looked at it with a slow smile, then looked up sharply straight at the watching woman.  Startled, the woman gasped and walked about in a fearful tremble.  But not long after she gave birth to twins, and the garden faded to the dimmer corners of her mind like the background hum of bees in a late summer garden.

The children flourished, and one of them she named Rapunzel for her eyes as blue as the flower.  There was a dreamy and wild distance in those eyes, and the woman sometimes fancied a shape around the child, the shape of the old woman.

And then, for no earthly reason, she began to fear that the old woman would claim this child for herself.  Perhaps if she renamed her she would be safe!  In fear she reached out for her little girl, sitting brightly on the grass, but a shadow fell over her.  The child looked up and smiled, the woman looked up and cried out.

A dusky silhouette before the sun, the black-robed old woman stood looking down at Rapunzel with eyes of sunlight.  Rapunzel touched her mother gently.  Then with a happy smile and dancing eyes she reached up as if to a beloved grandmother and entwined her fingers through the old woman’s.

The two turned and left, the woman staring open-mouthed and helpless after them.  Later, to explain the impossible event, she told everyone her daughter had been apprenticed to a distant healer, an honor for one so young.

 

The dark one and the bright one walked the deer paths through tall grassy fields never plowed to a deep forest that had never known an axe.  Plants and trees swayed, breathing and whispering.  Animals ran free and fearless.  Birds flitted past, singing.  Rapunzel called out to them.

Deep in the wild woods they came to a wide glen, enclosed by a fence of woven branches hung with feathers, bones, knotted roots, and stones.  In the center of the glen, on posts, stood the old woman’s dwelling, the eaves and windows hung with things swaying and clacking or chiming as with a breeze.  To Rapunzel, she had just found home and her eyes had only just opened and the real world was before her and she jumped in with joy.

How clear, unearthly, yet familiar every single thing felt, looked, sounded, tasted, smelled.  She called the old woman Old Mother, and soaked in her love like sunshine and her wisdom like moonlight.  She helped tend the half-wild plants and animals that lived about Old Mother’s home.  She ran especially to the horses, to brush them, watch each gallop out or return at their appointed times – the white one at midday, the blue-black one at sunset, even the pale gold-red one at sunrise if she rose early enough.  Birds, such strange and beautiful birds, would sit on her fingers and fling out rich, wild notes, and she learned to sung back to them.

Old Mother taught her to call certain animals whenever she left the cottage, and they would follow her closely.  One beautiful day, seeing a shining creature on the path outside the gate, Rapunzel ran out forgetting to call for them, and was half way out the gate when she paused.  A shining paw, talons spread wide, suddenly stretched far out towards her but then a shrieking shadow swept over her from behind. There was a darkening, a blinding flash, and when Rapunzel could see again the creature was gone and Old Mother was guiding her back inside and closing the gate.  After that, unbidden, an animal was always near her, a guardian shadow, and she felt a small current of caution she had never felt before.

At times there were visitors Old Mother would meet at the gate.  One of these would come as the sun sat low and spilled brightness along the path through a gap in the trees.  Rapunzel would watch from a window, seeing a bright burning shape before the brilliant, shining sun.  There were others who seemed to bring darkness with them, or crackling lightning.

There were some who would come in to the cottage and on rare occasions Old Mother held long talks.  But even some of these visitors were overwhelming, almost forbidding, to Rapunzel, so that, though she might be allowed near, she would sit half-hidden, curled up, silent, but listening and watchful.

Sometimes at night Old Mother would go out.  Often then, though Rapunzel heard high wind or rumbling thunder, within all stayed warm and safe.  But one night Old Mother suddenly ordered Rapunzel into the circle of light cast by the fire.  She whirled about, gathering objects and hurling out words of command.  The shutters slammed shut, the fire flared high, Rapunzel’s guardian animals drew close, and the door barred shut behind Old Mother as she flew out into the gathering storm.

Rapunzel huddled on the hearth by the bright and steady fire.  The storm drew closer and more ferocious.  Winds like approaching monsters came roaring through the trees, tearing off limbs, beating against the walls, shrieking across the roof and under the door to the edge of the light.  The air filled and swelled with heaviness and a tight, sharp buzzing.  Breathing became difficult.  Thunder exploded and cracked and bright sizzling green and red sparked through the edge of the shutters.  Across the roof and at the doors and shutters came screeching, pounding, pulling, sharp scrabbling.  The guardian animals shivered and sparks ran through their fur.

A crackling yellow flame lit the edges of the door, there was a heavy thud, and the door groaned and bulged inward.  The hearth burned brighter.  Yellow sizzling tendrils passed in under the door and headed towards the hearth.  The air filled with a sharp burning scent.  The hearthflame rose higher.  The guardians yowled in terror and protective rage and huddled closer around her.

The yellow flame snapped and roared more violently.  The wood of the door cracked and the lock and hinges whinged sharp and high as they gave in.  But then sharp multiple lightning blasts lit the door and shutter edges blue-white and shook the cottage and the ground beneath it.  A screeching bellow exploded outside the door and the yellow light fizzled out with snap like a huge whiplash.

Now breathing came easy, and though a storm raged on, all within was safe again and the fire never dimmed.  Rapunzel whispered continuous wishes for Old Mother’s safety until, after many hours, exhausted and dazed she slipped into sleep.

She awoke slowly to silence and dim light struggling in through open shutters.  The fire had burned low.  It seemed as if days had passed.  The air was fresh and mild and new.

And Old Mother was there, lying so still and cool.  Rapunzel put a warm blanket over her and lay next to her, whispering good wishes for her, but it was long before she woke, and then she moved slowly at first.

Although all seemed safe again, something of that night stayed with Rapunzel.  She asked Old Mother to teach her how to help in such times.  A corner of Old Mother’s mouth twitched up in a slight smile but she shook her head, saying it was a long wandering way to that, and the ancient ways were a maze.  Each step brought unknowns that changed the very pathways that came next.  But Rapunzel kept gently asking and Old Mother began to teach.

 

Rapunzel grew.  Lean and free she sprouted up and her hair kept pace, long and strong and shining like the sun. Then, it grew faster, and when she ran across the meadow the tips of her hair would stream out behind her and brush against the flowers and stir their scent up into the air.  It grew so long that she could lay up on the thatched roof and teasingly lower her hair to Old Mother as she sat on the doorstep, writing or spinning or preparing herbs.  And Old Mother would smile up at her, eyes shining with love.  Rapunzel’s hair grew so long that braids coiled about her head still trailed to the ground.

Old Mother gave her a beautifully worked necklace that shone sharper and sweeter than the finest silver, which she wore always, and a curiously worked knife that she carried always.  She taught Rapunzel which plants to collect, how to brew them, what they would help heal.  She began teaching about the sun, moon, and stars and how to mark their movements, and other ever more complex studies that seemed to take her farther and farther out onto thin air.

Sometimes Old Mother sent her to a tiny shelter deep in the woods.  Part of the old way, she told Rapunzel, came as a flower opening from a silence within.  She was to contemplate and observe.  But the silence did not unfold easily, and sometimes in the spaces between questions, Rapunzel’s mind went ringing back and forth like a bell.

 

Old Mother had told her there would come a time, a long time, of learning in solitude.  When she judged the time right, she led Rapunzel through unknown yet familiar woods to a long green valley surrounded by hills and vast forest.  Far off past the forest, toward the setting sun were hazy blue mountains.  To the east, nestled at the edge of the forest as if grown up out of it, was a tower of simple, grand beauty — a carven, hollow tree trunk from an age when giants walked and trees towered many, many times higher than the tallest now living, a giant even among those trees, a thousand times the great-grandfather of the vast surrounding forest as far as the eye could see.

Heavy briars encircled the tower except at the entrance, which was barred by a curiously wrought gate washed over with dusty gold.  Old Mother took out a small golden key from the folds of her robe and unlocked the gate.  It swung inwards and they entered a small stone room and climbed a winding stone stairway.  It was washed all in gold and on the walls were phantastic paintings and tapestries.  At each winding the stair looked out on one side to the valley and forest and on the other side to the tower’s central courtyard.  At the top of the stair was a massive stone door.  A key hung on the wall to the left of it.  Old Mother unlocked the door and it swung slowly inward.  Rapunzel stepped over the threshold.

This was to be her home through a long time of study, contemplation, prayer, spinning, weaving, brewing, singing, star-watching, silence.  She was free to explore the tower, the skies, the books, her thoughts, and the inspirations that came flying in to her like birds on wings.

Old Mother would come to teach, answer questions, bring food.  She gave Rapunzel the key to the golden gate, and a long cord with which to lower the key to her.  As she took the key Rapunzel paused, and a fleeting, mischievous smile brightened her face.

When Old Mother first came back, and called up to Rapunzel, she watched in surprised delight as Rapunzel’s hair came rippling down like a shower of gold, with the key tied to its tip.  After that, when she arrived at the tower, she would call up “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, that I may climb the golden stair,” and Rapunzel would unbind her hair, fix the key to the tips, and let it spill down the side of the tower like molten gold.  Old Mother would unlock the gate and climb the gold-washed stairs and unlock the stone door and Rapunzel would fly happily to be enfolded in her wise old arms.

Old Mother would smile and warm, and speak gently and lovingly to her treasured child who was growing so much.  She would bring food, new things to learn, and small treasures to delight her.  She spent long hours teaching and answering questions.  And Rapunzel slowly grew the first stirrings at the edges of wisdom.

 

There were four rooms encircling the tower top, each with its own character and vista.  On one side, windows lined with window seats faced out to the world.  On the other, windows looked down to a central courtyard far below, filled with a garden which shifted colors through the day and season, from bright blue-white beneath high hot sun to lavender-silver below a lunar ship sailing the ocean of night, lighting stardust and trailing wisps of clouds.

In the very center of the courtyard’s garden she could glimpse a rapunzel plant.  Though she found lower and lower corridors and windows to view the garden from, its entrance eluded her.

Sometimes from her tower top she saw smoke and faint flashes beyond the mountains on the horizon and rumbles like distant thunder.  All near her stayed peaceful.  No danger approached.  But those flashes brought to her daydreaming mind a vague image, like a very old memory, of a warrior.  She saw him in the midst of that smoke and thunderous flashes, and a chill ran through her and she wished protection for him.  Or she’d sing a soothing song to him as she sprinkled the simmering surface of some mixture or recorded in careful script the concatenations of the day, and the image seemed to pause and listen.

 

One day she noticed that in the garden the rapunzel had sprouted a tall central stalk, and she again sought passage to the courtyard.  She could come no closer than a third floor window.  Without thought she dropped down, expecting a hard landing but coming to rest on soft, thick moss.  She stood slowly and began wandering moss-covered paths, glimpsing innumerable things unseen from above, and plants and animals she had never seen in her life.  What birds could sing the songs she was hearing?  What animals left these hoofprints in the moss by the crystal pool?  This strange courtyard had a separate life, a time and pace and rule of its own.  And all it held looked so… grown from a different root.

After long windings she came around a tight twist in the path and caught her breath.  There glowed the rapunzel, surrounded by briar roses.  Buds had just begun along its stalk.  For a time she gazed.  Slowly she approached, threaded her way through the briars, reached out, gently took a few leaves, lowered her head in thanks, and left.  Once below the window again she saw that there was a heavy vine twining up around it.  Gently holding the leaves close, she climbed the vine.

Back in her tower, she spread the leaves out on a wooden plate and ate them slowly, with salt and herbs, one by one.  When Old Mother next visited, she sniffed the air and looked toward the plate, put away, and nodded slightly.

Rapunzel was drawn back to the garden many times.  She saw such animals that she thought must need roaming far past the confines of a courtyard, and she looked for some passage to the outside, but never found one.  She collected from the garden for food, drink, and medicine, but rarely approached the rapunzel, just glimpsed it from around the twist in the path to see that now it had flowered, and now its stalk had split in two…

 

One day she looked out from her tower to the west and saw that the smoke had disappeared and she heard only peace in the distance.  Even on that dark, moonless night there were no flashes to be seen on the horizon.  She sat at the window, singing happily, and the darkness seemed to listen, so she sang again the next night and the next, until one night as the setting sun spilled red-gold across half the darkening valley and a huge moon full in the east spilled silver-blue haze over the other half, at the foot of the tower, limned in the twin lights of the sky, was a worn and dusty warrior, his face turned up towards her.

Her song ceased and she drew in a sharp breath.  He looked like the warrior of her imagination.  Then he called up, in a soft deep rumble that vibrated in her soul, the last words she would have imagined: “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, that I may climb the golden stair,”, and a different world began its rush in upon her.

She looked down silently, breathing deeply.  He spoke again, a good-natured smile in his voice.  “From the hills I saw a river of bright gold pour down this tower.  And from the woods I saw and heard the old woman.”

Rapunzel looked and looked at him, so strangely not of her world and so the very image from her heart.  She reached for the key, undid her hair, and sent it tumbling down to him.

When he opened the tower door and she saw him close, wearing things she could not name or recognize –dusty leather, chain mail, a sword, an air of battle still clinging to him – the unknown of it was so strong she could hardly see him clearly.  But his eyes were the color of the night sky, and long dark hair framed his face so recently turned from battle, now overlaid with soft wonder.

She could see though that he was worn and thin.  She made him strengthening food and drink.  And he spoke to her.

He had led men in long hard battles, and had turned back invaders from his lands, but had sent his men on home ahead of him because there was something of the world he was wanting to see before he returned.  And then a golden waterfall had caught his eye.  He asked if he could come back again, and she nodded.  When he left, her familiar room had a distance to it and she felt as if the tower were thrumming at its vey core.

He visited every day, leaving his horse grazing at the foot of the tower.  They talked, haltingly at first, then more easily.  She showed him some of her studies and some of the tower.  Days went by and he grew less the stranger, more a deeply-known part of herself.

She knew though that Old Mother would sense change and arrive early.  It was best to tell her quickly.  But how, when Rapunzel didn’t know the words to unravel it for herself.

But the thing decided itself.  He had said something to make her laugh and she had looked up smiling into his face, but kept gazing, almost startled.  Transfixed, he looked back, then out into the distance.  His face warmed, his chest rose and fell.  His eyes, bright and clear and soft. met Rapunzel’s and her breathe caught in her throat and the new world overtook them.  They stood in the warm golden candle glow of the tower.  An owl’s hoot floated softly across the night air.  They smiled slowly and their eyes lit with lights new to them both.

They sat at the window, and gazed out, and waves of soft darkness swept in over them.  Rapunzel felt that they could go flying out right then, across the moonlit sky into the complete unknown.  Silent and serious now, their thoughts, wandering new territory, slowly stilled as the candles burned low.  Framed in the midnight sky they nestled against one another and fell into a deep sleep.

 

Rapunzel felt the room being held still and unmoving while the glow of the day grew brighter and brighter through her closed eyelids until it seemed she were looking at the sun.  She felt her warrior stir beside her and suddenly her eyes flew open and she was looking up at Old Mother, standing bright in the dawn light at the doorway.

After apprehension on her journey and a stab of fear at the sight before her, Old Mother felt relief; her treasured child was unharmed.  Then with a terrible face she surveyed this soldier, this interloper, this stranger, who was stirring as if trying to wake but unable.

Rapunzel could see that she was just deciding to hold off, to allow him a chance to prove himself, when he fought himself to waking and saw, as Rapunzel did not, looming in the uncertain light of dawn, a forbidding figure glaring balefully down with glowing eyes and a ferocity that pierced his mind.  Without a thought he reached for his sword and rose.

This was too much.  Here before her was everything she had kept Rapunzel safe from… attacker, arrogant dog of war, mindless brute invading peaceful home and holding sword to innocent throat.

Dawn turned angry red.  Old Mother loomed larger.  Her robes whipped about her with the winds of a storm, and her screamed curse split the air as would a bolt of lightning.  Even as Rapunzel dropped to her knees to plead for his life Old Mother’s arm swept out, the air sizzled and crackled, a deep boom shook the tower, a fierce wind howled through it and swept him out the window.  They heard his strangled cry of pain from below.  A sob rose from Rapunzel’s heart.  She turned to the window and without a thought leapt out after him.

A cry rent Old Mother and desperately she clutched onto Rapunzel’s hair.  Again without thought Rapunzel reached up with her knife and slashed her hair and fell free.

Now all Old Mother could do was hurl a command to the thorns, and when Rapunzel landed it was upon deep soft leaves and branches.  Then Old Mother flew down the stairs.

Rapunzel found her warrior grievously wounded, thorns piercing his flesh and slashing his face.  His eyes were closed and blood fell from him like rain.  But his horse came at his call, and with protective fear for each other they helped each other scramble up.  The trembling horse, eyes rolling, sensing the anguish of his riders, bolted into the forest as Old Mother reached the gate.

With horrible, bitter remorse she felt the wind of dark change that had just swept over them all.  As the silence settled over where they had disappeared into the forest, Old Mother sent after them the most powerful protective blessings she knew.

After a time the warrior slowed and stopped his horse’s mad gallop, and eyes closed, through tearing pain sat listening for sounds of pursuit.  He smiled grimly at the silence, and breathed a sigh of relief when he found Rapunzel was safe and sound.  The horse fought being turned around, and though limping now, instead trotted further down the path to where the forest suddenly opened into a glade circling a small waterfall-fed pool.  There was an old forester’s hut and a shelter for horses.

Rapunzel feared that even the best she could do would not heal him, but she gathered from plants growing about the glade in unexpected profusion.  She trembled as she tended the deep scratches raking his face and body and damaging his eyes.

That night, as they slept by a fire, Rapunzel dreamt she rose up like a silent-winged owl.  Coasting high on the night air, she looked down upon a single, flickering light lost amidst a sea of darkness.

 

There was nowhere else to stay and no way to find their way anywhere anyway – he could not see, Rapunzel knew no paths or places, and the horse still limped.  At night she woke from dreams and by day the little birds at the fringes of her mind whose messages she would not listen to out of fear and confusion would not leave her alone.  She wanted to return to Old Mother but feared for her warrior’s life.  They were safe though, all they needed seemed ever at hand for gathering, and her warrior healed.

Except for his eyes.  He willed, urged himself to see the summer flowers she brought him and the resin-laden pines whose scent filled the forest.  But as the flowers faded and burning autumn lit the trees his eyes remained dark.  And as the fires of autumn went out and winter swept in, hope froze and lay as numbly blanketed as the snow-covered woods encircling them.

But in the silent depths of winter, one would rest their head upon the other’s chest and find the comfort of a warm, beating heart, and with inner eyes see the bright glow of love, the welcoming haven of the hearth safe from all else.  One night, as the power of winter was at its greatest, Rapunzel cradled his head in her arms and sang with soft, sweet tenderness sounds that trembled out into the dark forest, still and listening beneath frosty stars.  Once he fell asleep her notes quavered, fell, dwindled to nothing out in the darkness, down to whispers on her lips, then contracted and vanished into silence.  And her tears began to fall like rain across his sightless eyes.  And so she fell asleep.

She awoke next morning to find him gazing up at her.  She stared.  He touched her face to comfort her, as he had in the past, but now he was looking, right into her eyes.  He could see again!  But, in the blaze of joy that followed, the first thing they did was close their eyes and see each other’ bright, beating heart once more.

 

Now he could find his way, and he was in truth a prince, so as winter broke it was first to his father’s kingdom they went, and then they would arrange a safe reconciliation with Old Mother.   Rapunzel saw a beautiful, peaceful land and a lordly king overjoyed at the return of his son.  But when the king saw the necklace Rapunzel wore he grew still, and then drew out from his robe a necklace of the same pattern.  He asked them for a full telling of their story, and as they spoke he grew grave, and then alarmed.

“You have no idea of what you have done,” he said softly.  “In the old, old days she was my teacher.  You ‘escaped’ her?  No.  No more than one escapes the noonday sun on a treeless plain.  She let you run free.  I marvel.  In the old days…’  A chill raised the hairs on the back of his neck.  You will go back and beg forgiveness, and so shall I, for having raised my son in ignorance…”

 

They met outside Old Mother’s gate.  Old Mother and the King stood, excluding all else, a silent, history-filled stillness between them.

Rapunzel and the Prince moved restlessly, feeling the touch of ages, mysteries beyond words, the turning of the heavens, and the fall of a leaf.

As Old Mother and the King talked long into the night beside the golden hearth fire, Rapunzel and the Prince drifted to sleep feeling the world was being reworked.

And when bright, long beams of dawning sun filtered through the green glade and in the windows, they awoke to find it had indeed been reworked.

The old, old rules had rewound themselves into a new and wondrous pattern, and though the King returned to his kingdom and Old Mother abided in hers, the two young ones remained with her, to learn, and to bind the tie that now entwined the kingdoms together.

 

The Beginning

Rapunzel — A Re-Winding  ©  Joan Stewart
Joan Stewart first thought of rewinding the tale of Rapunzel years ago when she read Paul O. Zelinsky’s note on his beautifully illustrated retelling.  She had what she thought was a flash of insight — how much a story can be fundamentally altered even while retaining its essential elements, and evolve (or devolve) along with the cultures they are formed in.  But then she read Joseph Campbell’s “Transformations of Myth Through Time”, and even the title let her know that this fact… had been noticed long ago.  She hopes her version is an evolution and will be enjoyed.