Cyndi Relles started out in life by stealing a pair of Bill Glass pumps from the bitch she cleaned house for. She doesn't regret it, and never will. The old lady owned more beautiful clothes than Cyndi ever thought she would, compulsively bought designer dresses and shoes in size 0 when she could barely squeeze into a size 10. Cyndi was skinny as hell from eating nothing but the old lady's scraps, from working herself to death scrubbing her inlaid marble floors, picking out oats and dried peas from the ashes of the antique Venetian fireplace. She was sick of living in cheap motels, sick of inhaling ammonia fumes until she got dizzy and thought the mice were singing to her.
The pumps looked like they would hurt, but they were beautiful, shining like diamonds in the soft, complimentary light of the walk-in closet. They fit Cyndi perfectly, better than her old sneakers did, and when she stood to walk on them she didn't even totter. She deserved those shoes, and they needed her. They were so beautiful that she didn't even care when the old lady fired her, when she had to move back into the trailer with her stepmom.
Yeah, that had been pretty shitty. But Cyndi had been out of there in three months, certain that the next step of her fate had been on TV. She'd auditioned for "Prince Charming," some reality show where a bunch of trailer-trash chicks like her lined up to impress a real, live prince. After her first "date" with Charles Charming Jr., it had been obvious that he was the real thing, a true-blue romantic looking for a princess in disguise. Instead of offering to let him try her fur slipper on, Cyndi had "accidentally" left one of her snazzy designer pumps in his room, right under the bed where he wouldn't notice it until next week. Charles had spent the entire season trying to track its owner down.
And after that, everything had been just like a fairytale. The wedding had been three hours long, and Cyndi had spent most of the honeymoon flipping through the hotel room's basic cable, trying to catch clips of it on the gossip shows. She'd run up a four-digit phone bill calling her stepmom and stepsisters from the hotel room just to brag. It was the best week of her life.
And then it had just been her and Charles, sitting around in a palace with nothing to do except fuck, and that had gotten old a lot quicker than Cyndi had expected. Alone with Charles, it was hard to remember how to act, what she thought he had liked about her. She'd loved being on "Prince Charming," perfecting her posing and mugging and earnest confessions for the camera--all she had to do was act like they wanted her to be, like a real princess lifted from the depths of the service industry would be.
So when Rapunzel Rampion of Rampion Networks came along with a nifty new contract and a promise of new fame, Cyndi didn't hesitate to sign her life over to TV. After all, a charmed life could only be better if millions of people knew just how charmed it was.
Aurora Perrault can't remember anything about her 16th birthday, but she can watch that episode of "My Royal Sweet Sixteen" anytime she wants. Sometimes she'll hole up in her bedroom and play it over and over again, watching as she squeals into the camera, watching as her best friends and her entire family sing "Happy Birthday" to her as they cut the three-story cake, as she dances with twelve other princesses whose names she still doesn't remember, as her father and mother and godmother present her with lavish gifts--a tiara, a Corvette, a pony. She looks freer, happier than she ever remembers being as a teenager.
The end of the episode is always tragic. Aurora has been drinking champagne all evening, and as she raises one more glass to her lips in a final toast, her blue eyes roll up in her head and she collapses. The music changes to some generic tragedy soundtrack, the camera lingering on her angelic face and glittering tiara for a full thirty seconds before someone comes to help her. "A sad ending to a fairy tale of a day," the announcer had said, sombre and deep.
Articles in the tabloids speculated on the reason for Princess Aurora's collapse--was it poison from a jealous admirer, a curse from a spurned godmother? The only thing Aurora can really remember is taking a few benzos before the party so she wouldn't freak out. Well...maybe more than a few. The bad thing about taking those is that you can never remember if you took them or not, so you have to take more.
Aurora doesn't remember her wedding to Philip, either, but she has the wedding photos (that are splashed all over T-shirts, commemorative flatware, and Yule ornaments all over the world) to prove that she was beautiful and happy and so nervous she nearly knocked herself out with Valium. She doesn't remember giving birth to Don and Day, either, although the children are certainly there to prove it, with Philip's nose and ears, and her lips and eyes.
Aurora didn't agree to be on "Real Princesses of the Magic Kingdom" because she needed the money or the exposure. She agreed to have the cameras on her whenever they felt like it, whenever something important might be happening, because that way at least she could turn on the TV in the evenings and watch herself live the life she can never quite remember.
Margaret Waldeck was never content with being a princess. There aren't many remnants of her misbegotten musical career left, the 8-tracks and albums having been consigned to bargain bins and garage sales, the posters and publicity photos long ago faded on bedroom walls and shredded to tatters. She had only been fifteen, desperate for attention since her father died, since his wife had retreated from the world with only her mirror for company. Of course, her teenage fame had come with all the temptations such things do--the parties, the men, the decisions she was too young to know how to say no to. She's fairly sure there's at least one "Behind the Music" special out there about her, but she's never bothered to track it down, never wanted to revisit that stage of her life.
She'd been sixteen when she'd gone out into the woods with an apple stuffed full of sleeping pills, not knowing if she really wanted to die or if she just wanted attention, the right kind of attention this time. She'd woken up hours later, when Hunter found her. And he'd listened to her, put his arms around her and showed her that he cared about her. That it wasn't her pretty face or her exploitable voice or her crown, it was her good, kind, nurturing soul that mattered. And as he'd told her these things, she'd started to cry.
It was then that Hunter told her about the Green Man, the embodied spirit of the forest. Give yourself to the Green Man, he said, dedicate your body and life to the ways of nature, and he will take care of you. Margaret had felt as though she'd been transformed right then and there. She went home and abdicated her throne (much to the relief of her stepmother), tore up her recording contract, and changed her name to Snow White for her new beginning.
She thought she'd found happiness, then, in the little cabin in the woods that they moved into, working with her hands all day, gathering and making what they needed, making friends with the birds and forest creatures. She thought she'd found more happiness when she bore Hunter a son, and then another and another, until they had seven little men running around in the house Hunter had built for two. She had never felt so crowded, so fulfilled, so busy. Someone was always around, always filling her time, and it was glorious.
Of course, that couldn't last forever. She understood that Hunter needed to move on, that his work of spreading the love of the Green Man was more important than staying in the same forest with seven rapidly growing boys (she cried and thought of sending them into the woods), that like the trees or the wild animals he had to be free to spread his gift of fertility over the land (she ached at the thought of him with another woman, another family), that the boys would understand (they wouldn't, and didn't). She was brave, and made do for a while, but the boys needed more things that she couldn't gather from the forest, and since she'd abdicated money was so tight...
Television was a corrupting influence on the weak, Hunter had told her, but she thought it could be useful, too. She'd approached Rapunzel Rampion with an idea for a morning televangelist show, but the tall, beautiful, short-haired blonde in the intimidating suit had been far more interested in the boys. "Seven? Really? And you're raising them all in the woods, are you? How fascinating." Fortunately, she'd agreed to reserve a portion of "Snow White Plus Seven" for a "Thoughts From Snow White" segment at the end. It's a good deal--the boys are taken care of, and she gets a whole minute to herself to talk about how proud she is of them, how much she misses Hunter, or to lecture the young girls watching her show on the futility of vanity. She hopes her stepmother is watching, somewhere.
Rapunzel Rampion wasn't a real princess, or maybe she was. She had never cared either way. The 90-story Rampion Tower had been a more lavish home than any palace could have ever been. And Gothel had been better than a queen, in Rapunzel's eyes. Her adopted mother loved telling her the story of how she built up her media network from humble beginnings, selling lettuce and telling stories from a cart on the streets of the city. "It doesn't matter who you came from," she told Rapunzel, over and over, "it only matters where you're going." And Gothel had known exactly which way she wanted Rapunzel to go--straight up.
Putting her on "Fairest in the Land" had been a special present by way of nepotism, when she was sixteen. Rapunzel had landed on the runway, blinking at the flashing lights. She'd been graceless and clumsy, her long blonde hair her only real merit. After three episodes, she'd quit of her own volition, tired of stumbling down the catwalk and the way the better models talked about her behind her back, ready to sequester herself in the tower again.
Zal, her cameraman, had followed her, telling her she was beautiful, no matter what they thought--that the camera couldn't capture what he saw with his eyes. She'd laughed and called him blind, told him to stop lying, she wasn't buying it, and left. Then he came to Rampion Tower the next day, and asked her out for coffee even after she cut her hair, after she took the makeup off, after there was no camera between them.
"People will laugh at me," she said. "Everyone knows my face. No, we're not going out anywhere."
"We can stay in," he said, and looked around the penthouse. "Shit, is this really where you live?"
"Yes," she said, and expected him to be impressed, because everyone was.
"Let me guess," he said. "That show was the first time you've ever been outside. You were so awkward, so beautiful, so unsure of yourself." He held out his hand. "Let me show you what it's like without any cameras, without any walls."
"My mother will freak," she said, and closed the door in his face, hoping he'd come back. But he hadn't, and she never knew if it had anything to do with Gothel or not, after all.
When Gothel finally died, Rapunzel had set herself to the business of making fairy tales. Real princesses, women who the camera loved and men went after, deserved to be in the spotlight. She much preferred watching them from the 90th floor.
A gentle hand pushes on Aurora's shoulder. Aurora pulls the covers over her head. "G'way, Philip," she mumbles. "None for you today. I'm tired."
"Mrs. Perrault, you must wake up." The voice is higher than Philip's; it's Miss Grimm, the housekeeper. Aurora sits up, her sleep mask sliding down her nose, to meet Miss Grimm's pinched face and worried eyes.
"What's wrong?" Aurora asks.
"The nanny has given notice," Miss Grimm informs her. "I believe she ran away with the chauffeur. I shall begin interviewing new staff immediately, but in the meantime, your presence is required to drive the children to school."
Aurora yawns. "I took an Ambien," she says. "I shouldn't drive. Can you do it?"
"I do not chauffeur," Miss Grimm says. Aurora would argue, but Miss Grimm is a treasure, the only staff member to hang on through Aurora's drowsy mishaps and Philip's lechery.
She climbs out of bed, sipping the strong coffee that Miss Grimm has placed on her bedside table. It barely clears the sleep from her eyes, but it gives her enough to get up and pull on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt.
Don and Day are beautiful, and Aurora loves them, but at eight in the morning they're hellish little brats who won't stop crying. "Where's Flora? Can we get hamburgers? Don poked me, Mommy, Mommy, MOMMY." Aurora turns on the radio so she can't hear them. She looks in the rearview mirror, almost reflexively checking her appearance--rumpled hair, creases in her face from the sheets, no makeup. She winces, although it's too early for the camera crew to be here. They usually roll in around noon.
She hustles them out of the car quick, quick, giving them each a hug before they go off to school. Day gives her a tight squeeze and a wet, sticky kiss on the cheek, but Don stands stiffly as she embraces him, and pulls away from her grasp as soon as she lets go. Watching them go away from her, Aurora can't believe how big they've grown. When did they learn how to walk, how to speak? Did she miss it?
"They're such treasures," says a woman standing next to her. Aurora recognizes her from some show, she thinks--hair as black as coal, lips as red as blood.
"They are," she agrees. She smiles, hoping that an air of doting mommyness will excuse her disarray. The other woman looks perfect, if plain, her hair shining like a raven's wing, her blouse starched, and Aurora begins to panic just a little, mentally measuring herself up and finding herself wanting. "Sometimes I wish I had a few more."
"I have seven," the other woman says thoughtfully. "It's been a long time since I've wished I had a few more."
Cyndi likes wearing her fur coats to the liquor store. It makes her feel kind of classy, like the Marble Halls cigarettes that rip her throat up and the handles of White Unicorn Whiskey are treasures a real princess would buy. And she thinks it impresses the cute guy behind the counter, Ash. She likes to tease him, saying, I bet I'm the only princess who ever comes in here, right? Yeah, he says, blushing, you're the only one.
She grins at Zal the cameraman as she's walking in the door. "Hey, people at home," she says. "This is where I get my little treats." She breezes down the aisle, running her manicured, be-ringed hands over glass bottles, and picks up a bottle of White Unicorn. Maybe they'll send her a few free cases of the stuff for the plug. "They say unicorns only go for virgins...this stuff ain't virgin." She giggles, and Zal rolls his eyes a little.
Ash is there today, sitting behind the counter with a cigarette in his hand and a magazine in the other. He looks up as Cyndi approaches, and waves weakly. "Uh..."
"Aw, don't worry about him, you're just going to be on TV. Say hi." Zal turns the camera towards Ash, and Cyndi leans across the counter and gives Ash a showy peck on the cheek.
"Hi," Ash says quietly, wide-eyed. He's dazzled by Cyndi's royal glamour every time she comes in, Cyndi knows, and now he's dazzled by the fact that she's a TV star. It's okay, though. Seeing him like this is the just about the highlight of her day, getting to tease him and watch him blush, getting to see the way he sneaks little looks at her out of the corner of his eye when she's dancing around the store, grabbing her things.
"Go get yourself a beer or somethin', Zal," she says to the cameraman. "On me." Zal obligingly lowers the camera and wanders off to the cooler, and they're alone.
Ash hunkers down, putting his elbows on the counter, giving the retreating Zal a sideways glance. "What the hell is this?"
"Oh honey, don't you watch TV?" Cyndi grins. "They've been filming me for a while, since I'm a princess and all. I just thought I'd bring 'em down to see you."
"Why the hell would you do that? I don't want cameras in here." Ash turns his back to her, searching among the cartons of cigarettes for her brand. He slams down the Marble Halls on the counter. "Get that guy out of here."
Cyndi pouts. "You have to let me," she says. "A princess can do whatever she wants."
"Not in my store," Ash says.
"Listen," Cyndi says, "it's fine. It's great for publicity, right? Princess Charming buys her shit here." She reaches across the counter for him. "This could be your big break, baby. Let me be your fairy godmother."
"I don't need a fairy godmother," Ash says, and he doesn't look at her or speak to her after he rings up her smokes.
Cyndi sighs, looking straight at the camera once she and Zal are out of the store. "Well," she says, trying to sound like she's making a joke, "there goes my little fling on the side."
Snow White feels a little sorry for the woman she's just met. Aurora looks tired, older than her years. Poor soul, she thinks, can't even handle two children.
"You look half asleep," she says.
"Maybe," Aurora admits. She brushes ash-blonde hair out of her eyes. "It's just a little early for me. I like to get my beauty rest. Fourteen hours a night, or I'm just an awful mess." She laughs.
"Oh, I don't bother with beauty rest," Snow says. "I like to actually get up early and get my children ready for the day. You know how long it takes to just get one ready."
"Not really," Aurora murmurs. "I don't do much of that. It's so hard. This is the first time I've driven them to school. The nanny's gone. I don't know what I'm going to do without her."
"It's not easy to be a mother without help." She had a nanny. Two children. Just two. Snow White swallows her envy and places her hand on Aurora's shoulder. It's not Aurora's fault she's not strong. "Why don't we go get some coffee? I have an hour and a half without any chores at all."
"An hour and a half..." Aurora tilts her head up, looking like she's calculating something, and shrugs. "Coffee sounds great."
They end up at the Sign of the Mermaid. Snow gets an herbal tea and wrinkles her nose as Aurora orders a triple espresso. "Just trying to wake up," she says sheepishly, and they repair to a table in the far corner of the shop.
"Now," Snow begins, "I find that it's easiest to begin my morning chores if I whistle a little. Or hum a cheery song. Especially with dishwashing, it goes so much more quickly if you whistle. And laundry--"
"Do you ever forget how old your kids are?" Aurora interrupts. "I do. All the time."
"No," Snow lies. "Never. Felix is ten, and my little genius Arthur is nine. Alex is seven--he's very shy for his age--and my special guy, Billy, with the problems...well, you didn't see him today, he goes to a special daycare." She takes a sip of her herbal tea, distracted by the way Aurora is slumping over the table, hands curled around her espresso.
"God," Aurora says, "you've got it all worked out." She tosses back half of her drink and fixes Snow with an unexpectedly piercing stare. "Do you ever remember your dreams? I do. I remember them better than I remember real life." She laughs. "I can say that, can't I, now that nobody's watching."
I'm having tea with a madwoman, Snow thinks. "I used to dream," she says cautiously, "but then my dreams came true, and they weren't very good at all. Dreams never are, when they come true."
Snow decides the time has come to change the subject. Aurora, poor Aurora, is an utter mess. Snow thinks she knows what she needs in her life, the same thing Snow needed but never knew she did until she had it. "Have you ever heard of the Green Man?"
"Why should I care about him, anyway?" Cyndi asks Zal, asks the viewing audience. She leans against her white marble kitchen counter and lights a cigarette. "He's just a liquor store boy. He's not a prince or anything. I mean, you tell me that." She waves her cigarette at the camera. "Girls, don't ever settle for the guy at the liquor store. You follow your prince. You get that bastard by the heart or the balls or the wallet, or whatever he has that's biggest--" She laughs. "And you tug until he's right there with you."
She's still telling herself that at night, when she's sitting against the bed with a half-empty bottle of White Unicorn in her hand and Charles still hasn't come home yet. Her mouth tastes like cigarette ash, like the ash she used to pick dried peas out of, like Ash would have.
She calls Charles. "Come home, baby," she says. "At midnight, I'm turning into a pumpkin."
Charles is there, later, sitting next to her. "A whole fifth?" He picks up the bottle of White Unicorn and upends it onto the carpet. It drips a bit, and then is empty. "Really, Cyndi?"
"You got a problem?" Cyndi would very much like him to have a problem.
"It's just not very dignified," he says. Cyndi would like to punch him in the face, but she can't, because he's snuggling up to her, putting his arm around her waist. "Why, Cyndi? What now?"
"I like the taste," she says.
Charles leans his head against hers. She can't stand the smell of his breath, the feel of his hair against her cheek. "I don't get it," he says finally. "Aren't you happy?"
"I got a palace," Cyndi says, "I got my fur coats, I got my designer shoes and my tiara and my prince, don't I? What do you mean, am I happy?"
"Is that what makes you happy?" Charles asks.
"What else is there?" Cyndi asks, and then answers herself. "Nothing. There's nothing."
And that's it, that there's nothing. Charles is right there, willing to give her anything, willing to rush home from whatever the hell it is he's been doing all day just to be with her. She doesn't have to do anything, doesn't have to fight for him or seduce him, and what kind of fun is it if you don't have to seduce your man? She thought maybe she could have gotten Ash, or maybe she could have let him get her, but whatever it is that she has is something he doesn't seem to want.
I'm a madwoman, Aurora thinks, driving home from the coffeeshop, gripping the wheel so hard she knows she'll leave finger indents in it later. Every second of her awkward, insane, unbearable conversation with Snow White is playing over and over in her head simultaneously. She could see it in the other woman's eyes--she thought Aurora was going nuts. But she couldn't stop herself, somehow; it was as though each embarrassing confession gave way to a thousand more. It's a good thing nobody was watching.
She has a few minutes to herself before the camera crew arrives, and she flutters between spending it trying to make herself look presentable, showering and slapping on some makeup, or spending a few more sweet minutes in bed. Maybe she'll be able to forget her excruciating conversation, the hot flush of embarrassment and the feeling of not being in control of her own mouth. Maybe the dreams she'll have will wipe it from her brain. Maybe she'll fall asleep for the rest of the day, and nobody will be able to film anything she does, just a lump under the blankets. That sounds nice.
Aurora finally takes something pink that crunches between her teeth so that when the camera crew finally gets there, she can be as ethereal and calm as she wants. But even through the fog of dazed perfection she mimics on TV, she can't forget a single second of that morning. Perhaps it will be the one thing she remembers when she goes to sleep again.
When the sun sets, she takes an Ambien, and then another and another. She closes her eyes and wonders if she'll dream of Don and Day, or of Snow, or of the Green Man. She never dreams of Philip. She never did. Sometimes she wonders if he's even there, if his hands and mouth are just phantoms she's created to explain something she can't name.
When Snow can't sleep, sometimes she'll do chores, get a jump on the day ahead. After her seven sons are securely in bed, she spends a pleasantly mindless half hour doing the dishes from dinner, whistling a tuneless song. She can see the moonlit forest from her window, and she smiles at it. It was the song of her crying that brought Hunter to her in the first place, and she hopes that one day, the song of her happiness will bring him back, out of the woods.
The first time she saw him, she thought he was the Green Man himself, his beard brown and tangled like vines, his eyes soft and warm, his face over hers like he was the only thing in the world. She was so young then, and seven children later, she feels so old. She knows she should take pride in the lines around her eyes, the signs of her aging that are good and natural, but she finds herself glancing away from them when she looks in the mirror.
There won't be any more children for her, not without Hunter, not with her age approaching like this. Her youngest is only two, a sleepy child, not in a hurry to be anywhere or grow up. But she can already see the day approaching when he will leave, when she'll be left with nothing but this forest, this house. She'll embrace it, she thinks, become a crone or a fairy godmother or a wise woman, whatever you become when you're alone and nothing needs you anymore but the forest.
Aurora finds herself in a dream, wandering in the forest so green and bright. Or maybe it isn't a dream. Her hands are dirty and gritty, the knees of her jeans soaked through and muddy. The trees are so very real, and she can talk to them, but they can't possibly talk back, not ever. She babbles, laughs, cries, sings horribly. She strips off her wet, dirty clothes and becomes a tree.
This isn't unusual, in her dreams.
The dream shifts and changes until she is standing at the door of a cabin, and it's bright and she can barely see. The woman in front of her not green, but red as blood and pale as snow. She reaches out to Aurora.
Aurora forgets to wake up.
The cameras are rolling when the naked, ash-blonde woman stumbles in from the forest in the middle of the day. Snow watches from the window, hands clean and soft from soap and dishes. Her first thought is only, oh, how embarrassing.
The cameras see Snow walking regally, like a princess, to receive the ash-blonde woman. They must be the wrong cameras, because Aurora doesn't look like a princess, doesn't look beautiful and effortless. She looks raw and scratched, and she falls into Snow's arms.
Snow White brings her into the cabin, murmuring to her. Aurora needs someone to show her the way, and Snow White is perfectly happy to be her mentor, her mother, her Green Woman. She'll pull Aurora out of her dreams.