The king’s wife gave birth to a child with no pigmentation. At first the woman was filled with fear. But then she saw that the child was a girl—the abnormality could be hidden. She wrapped the baby tightly and the king did not care to look at it.
As soon as the child grew hair—downy, fluffy stuff of perfect whiteness—the king’s wife dipped the child headfirst in ink to dye her hair black. She burnt a sharp stick of wood in the fire and poked the girl’s eyes with it to tint them. And she painted her lips with blood.
The king’s wife never let the girl leave the castle, never permitted her to play in the sun with the children of the courtiers. For the sun was too bright for the girl and her disguise was too thin. She was allowed only to creep through the shadowy parts of the castle and to brush her mother’s long, naturally black hair.
And so, never seeing her, except in flashes of bloodied lips, of pale skin and inky waves of hair, the people made up stories. They said she was very beautiful. Among themselves, they called her Snow White.
But snaking along beside this story, curling about it and choking it out at times, there grew another thing that was said about the king’s wife’s daughter. That she was not beautiful, but hideous. That she was not modest, but ashamed.
Still, the girl grew up. She became older and taller but no more like other people. She lurked in the shadows, hid beneath a dark cloak. It was only when wandering the tunnels beneath the castle, the dungeons, the root cellars, that she felt at ease.
The king’s wife was timid, diffident, but she knew a little magic. She enchanted a mirror and gave it to her daughter. A cruel gift, a mirror, to a child so different. But the enchantment! It saved her. Instead of her own pale face, with its weak, bleeding eyes and hair faded to nearly green, the mirror showed other faces. It showed her the fairest faces, but also those not so fair. She found amusement in it and a small measure of comfort.
As the girl aged, her mother taught her to dip her hair in black ink, to stab her own eyes with the fire-blackened stick of wood, and to bite her lips until they bled red and brilliant. And above all else, she taught her daughter to fear the sun.
During these years, the king ran his kingdom with cruelty and cunning. He forgot, mostly, that he even had a daughter.
But his subjects did not forget. They talked of the snow-white girl, so beautiful that she only sat in front of a mirror all day. They talked of the girl so ugly that her mirror showed her other faces, out of pity.
When the daughter finally came of age, the king was reminded of her only by the suitors who began to plague the castle. He considered how it might serve him to marry her to someone powerful, so he sent for her.
But when he finally saw his daughter, the king knew immediately that her hair and lips were dyed. That her eyes were colored with ash and nearly blind. He lifted his hand and struck her hard across her ghost-white face. His instinct was to thrust a sword through her belly, but the girl looked so helpless, cowering in the cold dark room. The split skin of her cheek was like a prettier, sideways mouth. The king thought it would be distasteful to kill her, and so he let her run away. She knew the tunnels well and hid from him, clutching her cheek, but with sure steps into the darkness.
Then the king found his wife, the girl’s mother. She was tried for treason and publicly beheaded. The king sighed with some regret over her death, for she’d been sweet to him and unobtrusive. Then he sighed again over the daughter they’d both let live.
The daughter attended her mother’s trial and beheading, but stayed in the shadows. She tried to watch, bravely, but her vision was too poor and so the execution was a blur.
She was afraid of the king, though he’d mostly forgotten her, and thought to hide herself in the mines in the north of the kingdom. With her near blindness, she navigated by the wind that rushed through her cloak and by the feel of the stones through her shoes.
Through the countryside, she slept with livestock and drank the slop of pigs. Or else she stole chickens, wrung their necks, and ate them raw. She carried with her a small shard of glass, a fragment from a broken mirror. She pierced her hand with it, smeared the red across her mouth and cheeks.
When the girl reached the mining towns, she scavenged at the edges of them, stealing garbage from the cottages, drinking dirty water and runoff from the caves. She survived this way for several weeks, until the men of an outlying cottage found her.
These men were miners, and like all miners of the north country, they walked on stump legs. It was the custom in the mines to cut off whatever made them too tall for the caves. Either the head or the ankle, as the saying went.
They pulled her from a heap of refuse, inspected her ghostly skin and the pale roots of her dyed hair.
They were disgusted and could see no use in her. They argued among themselves about what to do.
She’s trouble, let’s pretend we never found her.
She’s dangerous, let’s kill her.
She has a twat, let’s see if she’ll fuck us.
The oldest of them spoke the loudest, however. “These are good ideas, but each will keep. Let’s first see if we can wring some work out of her.”
So they took the girl to their cottage in the woods.
The first day, the men asked the girl to scour the pots and pans from their dinner the night before. She agreed. Yet, after they had marched off to the mines, she set about the task and found it too much for her. Her hands were too soft and her arms too weak to scrub away the grime.
Upon their return, six of the seven shortened men wanted to kill the girl, but the seventh and oldest prevailed upon them to wait.
The next day, the men asked her to do the laundry. The girl agreed, yet again when she set to it, she could not. The tub of water was too heavy and she could not bear the sun long enough to hang the clothes to dry.
When the men came home, six of them were furious, but the last man, being the most inured to misery, convinced them to try again.
Each day they gave the girl a different task, and each day she failed. Her eyes were too weak for some chores (mending, sewing) and her skin too delicate for others (weeding, tending the garden). And apart from her other faults, she had no talent as a cook.
The oldest shortened man finally agreed that sex might be the only thing she was good for. So it was the task requested of her, and she agreed. But it turned out to be just one more chore that the girl failed at. Her body was not very flexible and her skin was scaly, blistered and rough from her poor attempts at housework. Used to a life of hiding, she refused to cry out and merely scowled the entire time. Only four of the seven men managed at all, and those four admitted that the experience was not enjoyable. It made them feel weak instead of powerful, sorrowful instead of aroused.
The debate began over whether it were safest to cast her back into the woods or to run a spear through her belly.
As they were arguing, however, a new idea snaked its way into their discussion. At first, no one spoke the idea; it seemed too odd. But eventually, the men grew brave.
“We could take her to the mines.”
The girl agreed. She was not tall, but neither was she short enough for the caves, and so the bottom portions of her legs were cut off. The chop was made mid-shin, and the men considered her lucky to keep so much to hobble about on.
To the surprise of everyone, including herself, the girl was good at mining. From the beginning, she was comfortable in the dark, and could navigate the tunnels by the feel of the air on her cheek. Her fingers traveled the maps of the rock walls and she could feel which pulsed with ore and which were void of it. Her arms were weak at first, but they gradually strengthened.
And having never run joyfully in the sunlight, or danced at a ball, she missed her feet and ankles only mildly.
In exchange for her wages, the girl stayed with the seven men. She worked every day at the mines and knew her life was the best she could hope for. The men still bothered her for sex, but only sometimes, when they grew tired of each other. And she learned not only to hold her face more pleasantly, but to find a measure of enjoyment in it.
The oldest man gave her gifts occasionally. Ribbons, one day. Another time, combs. He once brought her a shiny red apple, but she was too blind to see the color and it gave her a bellyache anyway.
She took on color through mine work as the coal dust stained her skin and hair and eyes. She still avoided the sun, but it was more out of habit than fear. She kept the shard of broken mirror, though she’d forgotten its purpose.
The girl lived with the seven men and dug in the mines until she grew to a very old age and died. She had no children to bury her.
She was never put in a glass case—that was someone else. And no one kissed her white lips to wake her—that part was just a story, invented by a prince and peasant who wanted to marry despite their social standing.
When she died, the seven men, so old by then they were bent double, joked about the pervert who would defile her corpse. They proposed setting her on a hill to attract whoever wanted her. Only the oldest found the joke unfunny.
But in the end, they let the miners’ union provide a pine box and they dug a hole in the woods she’d sprung from. They were good at digging.