Throwback Thursday: Applesauce by Marsheila Rockwell
Editor’s note: Just when we thought we'd seen every possible permutation on “Snow White,” Marsheila came along with this dark yet strangely lighthearted take on the old classic. We think you’ll see why we were delighted by this story. Enjoy!
The witch checked her basket one last time before approaching the cottage in the woods. The apple on top was plumper, redder, and shinier than all the others, making even her mouth water. She pulled the gingham back over the fruit as she reached the cottage door and knocked timidly, settling into her guise.
A young girl soon opened the door. She had corpse-pale skin, moondark hair, and lips like clotted blood, features no mirror would ever call fair.
“Hello, dearie! I am selling these lovely apples, the finest—” the witch began, her voice crackling with illusory age as she uncovered her wares. The girl’s eyes lit up with hunger.
“I’ll take the whole basket!” the girl interrupted, disappearing back inside for a moment and returning with a small pouch. “This should be more than enough to cover it,” she said, flashing the neck open to show a sparkle of diamonds.
“Why, yes, but—” the witch began again, flustered, but the girl snatched the basket away and shoved the pouch into her hands in its place.
“No time, grandmother. Be careful in the woods. There are wolves about.”
And with that, the girl slammed the cottage door and was gone.
The witch stared at the closed door, flummoxed. This was not how she had envisioned her encounter with her runaway stepdaughter taking place. Still, if it got the job done….
She pressed her ear to the door to listen.
There. The crunch of teeth biting into the flesh of an enchanted apple. Perfect.
The witch turned and headed back into the woods, smiling as she tucked the pouch into her bodice. Soon she would be the ailing king’s only heir. And his darling daughter had just paid for—and hastened—what would be a very lavish funeral, indeed.
* * *
The girl watched from behind a curtained window while her stepmother disappeared amongst the trees. Had the old bat really thought she wouldn’t be recognized, or that her peddler’s disguise would hide her true identity from one who knew her so well? One to whom she had taught the same tricks of illusion, once upon a time?
She had tasted the flavor of the other woman’s magic immediately, and spit out the bite of fruit the moment the witch was out of earshot. This wasn’t the first time the witch had tried to kill her, and it wouldn’t be the last, and one of these days, the girl would fail to soften the huntsman’s heart or detect the hint of poison, and then what? She’d be dead, and all for a kingdom that hated her because she was not, and had no desire to be, her mother.
The girl eyed the basket of apples on the low table, topped by the one she’d bitten into, its flesh already browning.
It did seem a shame to let her all her stepmother’s effort go to waste….
* * *
That night, when the girl’s companions returned home from the mines, carrying bags of uncut gemstones and hunks of golden ore to add to the hoard already stored in their ever-expanding root cellar, she served them vegetable soup, acorn flour bread with goat butter, and mugs of that same goat’s milk. She watched them eat, longing as always for the taste of red meat, but the brothers were strict vegetarians.
The one whose snoring kept her up most nights sloshed soup out of his bowl with every spoonful. The one who thought himself a jester regaled the stupid one with poorly-told jokes they all knew by heart, and acted offended when one or another of his brothers would blurt out the punchline prematurely. The sullen one glared at the one with social anxiety for some imagined slight, making the anxious one cry snotty tears into his mug. The one who was always sick coughed something wet and sticky onto the butter dish. While the girl hurried to clean it up, the one who fancied himself a healer prescribed a concoction of common herbs she knew would be fatal in that particular combination. She said nothing.
When they were finished with their supper, the girl served them each a bowl of freshly made applesauce, still warm from her cauldron.
She watched as they wolfed down the dessert, and obliged with a smile when they asked for more. A smile that only widened when the first one paled, the second one began to sweat, the third one clutched his stomach in pain, the fourth one began to foam at the mouth, the fifth one began to seize, the sixth one vomited into his bowl, and the seventh one, finally, began to scream.
* * *
The witch returned to the cottage a few days later, expecting to find the girl’s companions mourning over her lifeless body. Instead, the cottage door stood open, the sickly-sweet smell of death reaching her from across the clearing.
She approached cautiously, then stood at the threshold, peering inside the silent abode. As her eyes adjusted, she could see upended chairs, scattered bowls, and bodies.
Seven corpses lay about the table, innards bared with whatever had been near to hand—pickaxes, butter knives, their own black-nailed fingers—to try and remove the poison burning through them. To no avail.
The witch also noted the open cellar door and a trail of spilled gold and gems. It led toward a back door, and the horse and wagon she knew without looking would no longer be hitched there.
She had wanted the girl gone, to eliminate any claim the child might have to the witch’s throne. And gone she was, fled with all the riches she would ever need, someplace where the witch would have no reason to follow.
She smiled. It seemed the girl had been a better student than she let on and the crafty apple hadn’t fallen far from the cunning tree. Their rivalry hadn’t ended how she’d imagined, but the witch would take it.
Whatever got the job done.
Marsheila (Marcy) Rockwell is a Rhysling Award-nominated poet and the author of twelve books and dozens of poems and short stories. A disabled pediatric cancer and mental health awareness advocate and reconnecting Chippewa/Métis, she lives in the desert with her family, buried under books.
Image: “The Poisoned Apple,” by Wanda Gag, 1938.