In a barren land of dust and gray, there is a garden so green the air around it glows with life. Very few have ever seen this garden: it grows behind high stone walls for which the door is secret, and hidden.
It belongs to an enchantress.
Outside the stone walls, there sat a cottage, and there lived in that cottage a man and his wife who longed most desperately for a child. They scraped what harvest they could from the unforgiving ground, and they prayed, and they prepared for the day that a baby would come.
They waited and they prayed for a very long time, but at last, the wife was expecting.
So little food as they could grow was barely enough for the two, let alone three, and the child that grew in her mother’s womb was ravenous. Often, the husband went without so his wife could eat, and though her belly grew round, his wife’s limbs were thin as reeds, for all the nourishment her body took was for the child.
Often they gazed upon the high stone walls and dreamed about what grew within.
One night, at sunset, the glowing light of dusk lit upon the pale gray stone, and curling over its border the wife spied the young tendril of a rampion plant. Her belly seized with longing, and right away she knew the child must have this tender shoot.
“Husband,” she cried, “Climb those walls and bring me the leaves of the rampion. Our baby craves it!”
He would not deny his wife and child such a simple request, but for the woman whose walls on which the plant climbed. “I dare not,” he replied. “What will the enchantress do if she should catch me?”
His wife moaned and sighed: her body was wracked with tremors. “My body is weak,” she told her husband. “If we don’t have this food, I fear I and the child will die.”
Unwilling to forfeit the wife he loved and the child for whom he’d waited so long, the husband agreed to bring his wife the rampion. In the cover of darkness, before the rising of the moon, he scrambled up the rough stone walls and filled his arms with leaves from the plant. He heard not a sound from within. He brought the tender leaves back to his wife in triumph.
She ate them with obvious pleasure, smiling at her husband the whole time. The food did her good: when she’d finished eating, her eyes shone, and her cheeks pinkened with a rosy blush.
The husband was emboldened to climb the garden walls again the next night, and then the next. His wife grew fat and healthy, with shining hair and glowing skin. He began to think himself safe. Soon, he was careless.
One night he climbed the garden wall under the light of a full moon, and found himself captured and under the enchantress’ power.
“None may eat from this garden and live outside its walls. You are mine.”
He told her of his pregnant wife and of the child she carried.
“If the child has eaten of my garden, then the child belongs to me.”
The husband tried to argue, tried to beg for the life of his child, but no man’s will can counter the enchantress. He agreed, and was set free.
Rapunzel was born amidst her mother’s tears. The next day, the enchantress came and bundled her away into the garden’s stone walls.
The child grew up lovely and strong, feasting on the fruits of the garden, and playing in its shade. Her hair caught the light of the sun and grew golden-pale from her gentle brow in waves. At twelve years old, she was more beautiful than any other woman human eyes had ever seen. The enchantress feared the girl’s beauty would not be safe left free in the garden. She built for the girl an oubliette, hidden deep in the thick of the rampion plants, and locked her away in the darkness.
High in a tower of the enchantress’ stone house there lived another little girl: the enchantress’ own daughter, Matilda. She had dark eyes and dark hair: night to Rapunzel’s day.
Her mother was determined they should never meet. Often Matilda watched Rapunzel from her room high in the tower, but never did she call to her or learn her name. The day the enchantress locked Rapunzel away, she let Matilda down from the tower.
She gave her free rein of the garden, with two exceptions: she was not to eat from the rampion plant, nor was she to go anywhere near it. (For in the thick of the plant, Rapunzel lay concealed, and the two girls were forbidden to speak.)
Every day Matilda did her chores and she walked in the garden. In the evenings, she ate with her mother. “Mother Gothel,” she asked, “Why can I not eat from the rampion plant?”
“Because you are my own daughter,” her mother answered, “and I have forbidden you to.”
“Mother Gothel,” she asked, “if I am your daughter, why do I call you ‘Mother Gothel’?”
“Because I am your mother,” the enchantress answered, “and I have commanded you to.”
The dark-eyed girl thought for awhile. “Mother Gothel,” she whispered, “what’s happened to the girl with the golden hair?”
But her mother didn’t answer her then. She left the room with a swish of her gossamer dress.
To forbid is to invite temptation, and it was not long before Matilda found her way into the rampion plants. Unlike the sunny, tended patches in which the girl spent her days, this part of the garden grew dense and wild. Stumbling over the uneven ground, she fell and landed upon a wooden door set into the ground.
There was no sign of Mother Gothel around, and so Matilda decided to lift the door and discover what it concealed. The door was heavy, made of oak and iron, and it took all of her strength to move it aside. She heaved and pulled, and when the door was opened, Matilda had uncovered a dark chasm dug deep into the ground. The walls were slick and steep, and Matilda was sure this cavern had no bottom, until her eyes followed the shaft of light down onto a small, pale face turned up toward the opening.
It was the golden-haired girl.
“Hello?” Matilda called down into the dungeon.
“Hello.” The girl’s voice was thin but clear: it carried up from the depths like the tinkling of a silver bell. When she turned her head, a long mane of pale silver-gold hair flashed and trailed behind her.
Matilda gripped the solid earth with her white fingers as she peered down into the darkness.
“Why are you imprisoned here? Why do you not walk in the garden as you used to?”
“I am no longer a girl,” came the girl’s reply, “and can’t be trusted in the garden.”
“Are you hungry?”
“I eat only the rampion plant, and of that, I have plenty.”
Matilda frowned. “I am not allowed to eat from the rampion plant.”
The golden-haired girl laughed.
Matilda frowned again. “What is your name?”
When Matilda left the strange girl that day, she took with her a handful of leaves from the rampion plant, and ate them. Afterward, she felt stronger - and that night her hair began to grow.
After that, Matilda visited the girl Rapunzel every day, in the afternoons, when Mother Gothel was asleep. She would peer over the edge of Rapunzel’s oubliette, and the girl who was not a girl anymore would tell her stories or sing her songs. They would talk of many things, and Rapunzel would read to her from the many books that were there to be her company.
Matilda thought she preferred the company of Rapunzel best. And all the while she ate of the rampions and her hair continued to grow. It was so long, she had to coil it behind her head in a great knot, and wrap it in a silk scarf, so that Mother Gothel would not see.
Sometimes Rapunzel’s hair was long - so long she had to sweep it aside so she may walk around her dungeon chamber. Other times it was cropped quite short.
Matilda noticed that often after Rapunzel’s hair was cut, Mother Gothel had a new dress of the same golden color.
“Mother Gothel,” she asked. “Where do you get the silk to make your lovely golden dresses?”
“Never mind, child,” said Mother Gothel. “This is not something you must know.”
“Mother Gothel,” asked Matilda, “What are the things that I must know?”
“That I am your mother,” answered Mother Gothel, “and that you should obey me.”
Despite her mother’s warnings, Matilda continued to visit Rapunzel amidst the rampions. For years, she hid their secret meetings. Until one night, she ate with her mother under the stars.
“Mother Gothel,” asked Matilda, “Why have we no books in the garden?”
Mother Gothel’s head snapped on her graceful swan neck. “What do you know of books, little girl?”
Matilda tried to answer her, but she could not come up with a lie.
Mother Gothel was furious. “You have been visiting Rapunzel! You live here in my garden, and all I ask is that you obey me! If you cannot, then to the tower you must return.”
Up the winding stone steps Matilda was led, and behind her, Mother Gothel locked the heavy oak door.
There was no way out of the tower: the doors at the bottom and top were heavy and solid, and Mother Gothel had the only key. The walls of the tower were steep and slick.
Matilda despaired she would ever see the garden again. More than that, she despaired she would never see Rapunzel again, for understanding now the true nature of her Mother, she knew that Rapunzel was the only person she had ever loved, and who had ever loved her.
That night, she wept bitter tears into her pillow.
Dawn broke pink and golden over the lush green foliage of the enchantress’ garden. Matilda wept to see the sun’s light shining through her window, for it meant her first day locked alone in the tower--the first day she would not visit Rapunzel.
Matilda stood at the only window to her tower prison and thought about what it would be like if she were to fall...
Over the songs of the birds waking up below, she heard her name being called.
“Matilda, Matilda! Let down your hair!”
Standing below her, pale eyes blinking into the sun, was Rapunzel.
“Rapunzel! Do I dream? Am I yet asleep? How is it you are here at my window?”
And Rapunzel told her of the enchantress’ visit and how she taunted Rapunzel and told her about Matilda’s imprisonment. She told her how, when Mother Gothel came down her secret ladder to cut Rapunzel’s hair, Rapunzel pretended to be sick and surprised the witch, hitting her over the head with the heavy scissors, and climbing the ladder to leave the woman to her fate.
“Come join me, Matilda, and we shall be free of this place!”
“How shall I join you? We haven’t the key!”
“Let down your hair, Matilda, and I will climb up to you.”
Matilda uncoiled her long dark hair and hung it out the window. Rapunzel climbed up, light as a feather, to join her.
Matilda’s heart burst with joy, and in her joy she pressed herself into Rapunzel’s arms. With fevered lips, she kissed the golden woman who was her savior and thanked her a thousand times.
Then Rapunzel took the scissors and cut the thick braid from Matilda’s head. They tied one end to the heavy bed post and climbed down the other to the ground below.
“Where will we go?” Matilda asked Rapunzel. “I never thought of leaving the garden before.”
Rapunzel took her hand and led the way. She found the big, heavy iron gate in the stone wall overgrown with vines and flowers. (Funny Matilda had never noticed it before.) Together they pushed it open, and hand-in-hand they left the garden forever.
And out into the barren land of dust and gray, the green came trailing after them.