The king is dying.
She admits it.
The king is dying and she should be there with him, attending to him somehow, or comforting the queen, who wouldn’t accept her comfort anyway, but, still. She should be at their sides instead of here in these woods looking for the old Hag. Or, not the Hag specifically, who was chased off the cliffs and fell to her death, or so it’s assumed, since nothing but her rain-soaked robes were found at the bottom of the chasm.
Not the Hag, then, but the Hag’s cottage.
Though let’s be honest. The old Hag’s cottage, after having lived there for sixteen years, is more to her than just the old Hag’s cottage.
She should be with the king, she knows. Weakened and wasting away. Going mad with pain, surrounded by strangers, apothecaries, clerics, magicians, and whatever other assortment of miracle workers sent for by the queen. But she also knows, or feels, or believes she feels, that if she can just find that cottage again, then everything else in her life will be set back to rights.
That she could have spent sixteen formative years of her life living in that cottage, living in these woods, and yet be unable to find it, even after almost a year of sneaking out of the castle to go in search of it, drives her to distraction.
Still, here she is, lost in the Darkening Woods yet again.
For a long time, she tried to get the animals of the Darkening Woods to tell her something about the Hag or the about the Hag’s cottage, but they’d stopped speaking to her. Not just that, but the birds and rabbits and turtles and deer had stopped gathering at her feet, as well. Had stopped bringing her baskets full of flowers or apples, had stopped draping bedsheets over her sleeping form in the middle of the night, had begun to act like birds and rabbits and turtles and deer normally act—frightened, in other words, and distrustful, blank-eyed and without intelligence or voice—which had depressed her, made her feel she had somehow offended or betrayed them, or that they had simply abandoned her, until she realized that the talking animals must have been nothing more than a side-affect of the potion that the Hag had used to drug her and, towards the end, wipe clean her memory.
Which, coming to this realization upset her even more, made her wonder what other memories of those years with the Hag and the cottage had been nothing more than a side-affect of the potions the Hag fed her hidden inside apples and cakes and gingerbreads. It made her wonder if there had been a cottage at all.
Maybe if she sings, she thinks. She lets out a few, croaky, warbly notes. Birds and squirrels overhead scatter and fly away.
She was supposed to be happy, saved from the wicked clutches of the old Hag who had abducted her only weeks after she’d been born. Happy to learn that she was a princess, not a peasant girl living in isolation in the Darkening Woods. Happy to learn the true origin of her birthmark, be reunited with family and friends and the six spirit sisters, who were supposed to watch over and protect her, though she’s become good at slipping out from their watchful eye. And she was happy, at first. The old Hag had become overbearing lately, and unreasonable. When she was a little girl, she and the old Hag had gone deep into the Darkening Woods to pick flowers and mushrooms, to converse with the woodland creatures, to bathe in the cool waters at the base of Forever Falls. But towards the end, she’d become paranoid, asking her where she was going, bolting the doors and windows, sprinkling protective powders around the cottage. Although, in the end, it seemed less like paranoia, with all the palace guards and the six spirit sisters with their powerful spells.
Anyway, she had been happy at first. But then, after a month, after two, the castle began to feel cold and big. Her father, the king, was nice enough, but seemed distracted by kingly affairs, and now, being sick and at death’s door, the sight of him confused her. She should be sad at his imminent death, being her father and the king, but all she can muster for him is pity and an urge to avoid looking at him. It shames her to admit, but when she is at the king’s side and is being watched—she is always being watched—and she feels the weight of expectations pressing down on her, she will think of the old Hag, will bring to mind the image of her falling from the cliffs, and that’s how she will summon tears for the king.
She sighs, or maybe it’s a sob. It’s no use. She is lost, hopelessly so, has been walking in circles for an hour now. She hikes up her dress and sits on the forest floor and waits. She waits for the old Hag’s cottage to magically appear before her, or for the old Hag herself to step mysteriously out of the darkness of the Darkening Woods, or for the king to die. She waits for something to happen to her, for anything to happen at all.
Story by Manuel Gonzales
Photo by Emily Raw