August 3, 2020

Death and the Mother, By Melissa Yuan-Innes



Editor’s note: I couldn’t resist this angle on the Angel of Death. Melissa takes a classic fairy tale and Death and mashes them up in a very unexpected way. A surprising and satisfying tale.

The Queen gasped as her newly born infant daughter snapped at her breast. "What shall I do?” asked the Queen, cradling the hungry baby as best she could.

"Your Majesty, I will fetch your wet nurse," answered the youngest attendant.

The Queen shook her head. She had longed for this tiny princess for far too long to hand her over immediately to a wet nurse.

"It is better for you to rest now. You have lost too much blood," said the midwife, drawing a soft, white dressing gown over the Queen's shoulders before she reached for the princess.

The Queen pushed away the midwife’s hand as the baby clamped on for several excruciating moments. As tears rose to the Queen’s eyes, the newborn's eyes closed and her tiny body sagged into sleep.

The Queen laughed and held her daughter tighter. They would try again later. The Queen tucked her head against her baby’s soft head, trying to inhale her new scent, but a sudden chill cut through the bedroom.

She opened her mouth to order someone to stoke the fire. Instead, she froze, spying a charcoal mist undulating toward the bed.

Within seconds, the mist coalesced into a figure wearing a long, black cloak.

He pushed back the hood to reveal his skeletal face. He hoisted his scythe in the air, aiming at her precious baby's throat.

She tucked her own body over her baby's. She had no time for disbelief or fear. "Angel of Death, you cannot have her."

"Your Majesty, do you see someone?” asked the Queen's attendant.

The midwife's head jerked up. She gasped, a tiny puff of air.

The Queen ignored them both in order to concentrate on the specter in front of her. "Death, hold thy sting. This baby is not for you."

Death paused with his scythe in the air. His voice was like the wind rattling winter's dry branches. "She is mine. Look at her skin, pale as alabaster. Her heart is not strong. She belongs in my arms, not yours."

"Her lips are as red as a summer's rose," countered the Queen.

"Yes, yes, the fairest of them all," soothed the attendant.

The midwife placed a hand on the attendant's arm and shook her head, ordering her to be silent.

"Her hair is as black as ebony. She lives, she breathes, she came through my body. She is not for you!” the Queen shouted. Her uterus tightened. She gasped as she bled afresh between her legs, but it didn't matter. Only her daughter mattered.

Death shook his head. "A beauty she may be, but not for this world. I am sorry for your loss, my Queen."

"Am I your Queen, then?” she answered, holding the infant so close, she murmured in protest.
"All of you are mine, sooner or later, my Queen."

"If I am your Queen, if I belong to you, then you may take me in her stead."

Death shook his head. "I am not here to bargain, my Queen. I am here to cull a life."

The Queen fixed him with her most imperious glare. "Are you, then? If any life will do, you may have mine and be done with it."

Death chuckled. It felt like finger bones clinking in her throat. "It does not work that way, my Queen. Once a human has been marked for Death, I will keep coming, no matter how many lives are thrown in my path."

"Will such a life slow you down?” the Queen asked, raising her own pale hand, nearly as white-skinned as her daughter's.

"It might tarry me a little, but I will come regardless."

"Tarry then, with my life before her own."

"As you wish," said Death’s Angel, and swung his scythe at the Queen’s throat. With her last breath, she kissed her daughter one final time.

Blood gushed from between the Queen's thighs, soaking the bed.

The attendant screamed.

The midwife yelled, "Take the child! Call the Royal Physician!" and did her best to staunch the flow, but when the Queen's skin turned waxen and her lips leached from red to blue, the midwife whispered, "I will aid you as best I can, my Queen."

 ***

Nine years later, Death exited the castle with another soul. Every time, he expected to carry off the princess, but this time, it was a scullery maid who caught the worst in a kitchen fire.

The Angel passed through the gardens and paused when he heard the King speak of his daughter. "She is too clumsy."

"That may be," said the Chief Advisor, "but Snow White's beauty is already renowned throughout the land. She will not want for suitors.” He smiled at the little girl who tossed her ball in the air and shrieked for joy.

"I had never thought a princess capable of falling in a moat," said the King. "Then, the other day, she choked on a piece of bread."

Death would have smiled, if he had possessed lips.

"The midwife happened to be passing and managed to remove it," said the Chief Advisor.

"Yes," said the King, but his gaze strayed to the miniatures sent from neighboring kingdoms. He would have to marry again, and soon, to ensure heirs, preferably sturdy boys and not beautiful but clumsy girls.

Death fingered the sharp blade of his scythe. Soon, he promised it silently. The Queen's blood had protected her for nearly a decade, but he would return for the girl soon.

***

Less than a year later, thanks to a new and jealous Queen, Death stalked the little princess on the heels of a huntsman. Death could feel her small, weak heart hammering in her chest and hear her frightened gasps as she stumbled over the roots of trees.

See? he silently asked the former Queen. Would you not prefer a peaceful death in your arms, as an infant, to being hunted like a deer before her heart and lungs are excised from her chest as a bloody trophy for the new Queen?

A branch lashed the princess next to her left eye. She cried out and crashed down on her hands and knees on the edge of a clearing.

The huntsman raised his blade.

Now, thought Death. His scythe was sharp and hungry.

The child wept. The tears and mucous on her face glistened in the moonlight. "Please, sir, I beg of you!” the child pleaded.

Death shook his head. She had evaded him for ten long years. Payment had come due.

A sound rustled in the bushes. Death ignored the wild boar, but the hunter raised wild eyes toward the animal.

The child began to weep and wail in a way that might have touched Death's heart. Fortunately, he lacked that particular organ.

The huntsman cast his knife at the boar's side. Its screech rent the air. Its forelegs lurched.

"Go!" the huntsman shouted at the child. "Go far and never come back!"

Death's teeth clattered in his jawbones. He pursued the still-sobbing girl, but she managed to stagger deeper into the forest, away from the huntsman, who seized a dagger and sliced the still-screeching boar's throat.

The Angel of Death raised his empty eye sockets to the sky. He did not believe in heaven or hell, but sometimes, he wondered if the former Queen could unduly influence matters, still.

***

Fortunately, the new Queen did not entrust Snow White's fate to incompetent underlings a second time. By springtime, she had located the princess and enticed her into sampling an exquisitely ripe but poisoned apple.

Snow White choked as soon as the poison touched her tongue. Her stomach heaved.

Death eyed the princess, wondering if her mother would somehow manage to expel the bite of apple from beyond the grave.

The princess's eyes protruded. She tried to cough. Her hands flew to her throat and waved there helplessly while the apple remained embedded in her gullet. Less than a minute later, the girl slid to the ground.

Her chest no longer rose or fell.

"Good," said the new Queen, and hobbled away, still disguised as an old peasant.

Death swung his scythe at Snow White's throat. When he pulled it back, her soul followed, drawing out of her body.

The shimmering golden web caught half-way. When Death yanked his scythe, the soul struggled away from him, arching back toward the corpse.

"What's this?" said Death. He touched her body with one skeleton finger. Immediately, he understood. The princess had been born with an extra ring of muscle in her swallowing tube, causing her to choke on too-large morsels of food from an early age. The apple piece had lodged there. She had choked and fainted, but had not crossed over. Yet.

Death drew his pocket watch out of his cloak and studied its face. The clock had mysteriously reset itself to show five more days. Death could wait five more days, while the poison seeped into her body and completed her murder.

"Soon, my pretty," he said, tapping a finger bone on her brow.

She did not even blink. She was so close to Death, in more ways than one.

Death drew his cloak back over his face and vanished.

Five days later, he reappeared at her side, slightly surprised to see her arrayed in some sort of glass coffin while seven little servants struggled to carry her aloft.

"That will make a fine tomb," he said, scything her throat. His weapon passed easily through the glass. He reached once more for her soul. This time, it came readily, if slowly, as a silver thread spooling out of her body. He spun it into a ball, humming.

The thread slowed down. He tugged at it.

The thread stopped altogether.

She still clung to life. A stubborn child, just like her mother.

Death raised his scythe a final time.

A pallbearer stumbled. Another one ran into him.

The glass coffin tilted. The little pallbearers scrambled to hold on, but it fell to the ground. Two glass panes fractured instantly.

Snow White's body bounced once, twice, still contained in the coffin. The Angel dove toward her, scythe ready, just as the princess stirred and coughed.

"She lives!” shouted a little man, and soon they opened the coffin and swarmed all over her.

Death gnashed his molars. They were in the way, but he had negotiated battlefields much worse than this. He hefted his scythe one last time.

The princess gagged and spat out the poisoned bit of apple.

Her soul unwound back into her body.

"No!” shouted Death, snatching the ball of silver thread, but it passed through his hands and flowed like a thin silver river toward her now-breathing form.

"No, no, no!” insisted Death. He seized his pocket watch. The princess's death had been reset to eleven years hence.

"No one cheats Death," he yelled. "You are all mine eventually. Kings, Queens, shoemakers and sin eaters. Babies or grown women. You all belong to me."

No one responded to him. The girl sat up, blinking in astonishment at the seven little men cavorting around her, singing their delight.

From the sidelines, a taller man dressed in fine leather boots crossed to her side and caressed her cheek. When she turned toward him, he pressed a kiss on her lips.

Death hoped that the poison remaining on her skin might harm one or both of them, but they merely beamed at each other. The man embraced the princess as if she were a weakened fawn he would nurse back to health. She closed her eyes, leaning into his disgustingly healthy body.

Somewhere, somehow, The Angel of Death could have sworn he heard the former Queen laugh.

***

Bio: Melissa Yuan-Innes is a doctor who loves fairy tales and werewolves. She’s a Writers of the Future winner published in Nature and The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. She writes the Hope Sze medical mysteries as Melissa Yi, recommended by the CBC and Ellery Queen. Her website is www.melissayuaninnes.com.

***

Image by Richard Tennant


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27 comments:

Kelly Jarvis said...

This story gave me the chills! I loved the story of Snow White when I was a little girl, and I remember gazing at the picture of her mother looking out the window and wishing for a child. My other favorite picture from my storybook was the one of Snow White running through a dark forest with tree branches and animals reaching out to harm her. This take on the story presents a spooky feel and also illustrates the power of a mother's love; fabulous read!

Kate said...

This was totally unexpected. I thought I’d seen it all, but clearly I haven’t!

Melissa Yuan-Innes said...

Thank you so much for reading, Kelly, and for choosing my story, Kate.

I wrote this after I had my son. I said to myself, "No one ever talks about Snow White's mother. And how on earth did Snow White manage to evade death so many times, especially with a poisoned apple?" Once I decided that she had an esophageal ring or web, the story wrote itself.

Katew said...

The whole esophageal thing was so interesting and unexpected!

AMOffenwanger said...

This is an amazing story - I love it. Poor death, getting the short end of the stick... However, now I'm worried about Snow White, having only until age 20. Is *she* going to die in childbirth, as well?

Katew said...

OMG! I thought the same thing. I love the way it’s just hanging there, leaving us to wonder.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

What a lovely and sinister retelling! Thanks for finding a deeper story underneath the orginal. Also: Go, all moms!

Katew said...

It really is lovely and sinister. And I agree about moms!

TheaH said...

Thwart Death, find love! Great story!!

Katew said...

Well stated!

VM Chick said...

Great story and so original!

Dawn said...

Loved, loved, LOVED this! More, please.

Kate said...

😊

Kathleen Jowitt said...

Oh, lovely! It was really good to see some of the other people who must have been around but who don't appear in the original - the midwife, the scullery maid, the advisor. And Death made a very compelling character, malignant, self-justifying, but not all-powerful.

Kate said...

I love stories that include the right amount of characters—a lot don’t. But this was just right.

Tonie Pacey said...

Wow, Melissa. This is terrific. What a rush. It just flowed, faster & faster. I'm glad it wasn't a full length novel because I couldn't put it down. Thanks so.much for this.

Kate said...

You’ve got a lot of company. People really like this story. It’s getting a lot of traffic.

Melissa Yuan-Innes said...

Thanks so much, VM!

Melissa Yuan-Innes said...

Thank you, everyone, for reading and commenting. I appreciate it so much. So much of the time, we write in a void. It's wonderful to get instant feedback and become part of a such a welcoming site.
Thank you, Kate, for providing a beautiful haven for fairy tale lovers.

Lynden Wade said...

Loved this. Good for Snow White's mother to get a cameo. Her love was very strong, outliving death.

Katew said...

Yes, the mother is usually such a slight, almost negligible presence in the familiar story. It was good to see her remembered in this one.

Ellie a.Goss said...

A wonderful twist on a classic.

Aliza Faber said...

Haha, after reading this I am certain that she will probably not die at childbirth but will find a way to evade death yet again. Great story!

Melissa Yi said...

Thank you!

Melissa Yi said...

I have to say that I was thinking more along Aliza’s lines, but it could go Death and AM’s way too. Death is sneaky. Of course, so are mothers!

Unknown said...

I could "see" deaths' countenance,feel his frustration, anger even lending the teeniest wisp of sympathy all while cheering on SW and her Mom!
What an interesting way to round out and add texture to an old tale, well done Melissa!

Katew said...

We are indeed!

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