The nettle leaves sting and bruise my fingers. Sometimes I remember to stop for a brief moment and suck the blood from them. Most of the times I just let it drip over the green leaves and taint their color. When one is silent for so long, your pain is mute, too. Besides, every minute I spend dwelling on my pain is a minute I don’t spend weaving the nettle coats for my brothers, who are so tired of flying. I only think of them, and that gives me strength. If I think of myself too much I’ll go crazy, and then what will be of the coats? Pain doesn’t matter, nor does the muteness. Only the fear matters; what will happen if I don’t finish the coats on time, and then my brothers will have to go on flying forever. I wish I could fly, be a bird for while, and my brothers would be here, weaving a coat of nettle leaves for me. At least I’d be out of this cave.
I was the only one who didn’t hate the woman whom my father married to ease his loneliness My brothers hated her because she threatened their inheritance. I was very young and didn’t think about any of this. I just wanted a mother, because I never knew my birth mother. Everyone kept telling me how beautiful and kind and graceful she was and how I look just like her. I didn’t hate my father’s new wife, because I longed for a mother; to comb my hair and to tell me bedtime stories and scold me. But she couldn’t stand the sight of us from the very beginning. She did not like my father, either. She thought he was a wimp and not ambitious enough. I think she was bored to death. She was a queen, yet she was unhappy. She would wonder the long, dark corridors of the palace and mumble to herself. I wished she would get up and do something, as long as she stopped her mumbling.
And she did. Oh my God, she certainly did. She put an evil spell on my brothers and turned into swans, and I had to take a vow of silence and weave coats from nettle leaves and keep silent, until the coats were ready, and then I would save them and end their misery. I matter now, and that is all that matters. When I am able to speak again and they no longer will be birds we can talk about everything; about how come they get to fly off together and I am sitting here all alone, bound to keep silent.
They hated her from the very beginning because she threatened their inheritance. I didn’t have a right to it in the first place, so what do I care? I was to marry someone who did have an inheritance, some prince. And then I was to pretend that I am living happily ever after. Because how can you not be happy when all you have to worry about are the flowers for the dinner table? .
So maybe this twist in the plot isn’t so horrible after all. At least now I have a role. My brothers’ faith depends on me. I can’t sing, shout or curse, or even make a sound, because then the spell will never be broken and that would be horrible, because I will lose whatever family I have left.
And it’s not like I have anyone to talk to, anyway, and I talk to myself when no one ca hear. But I would have loved to talk to her, to my step-mother; I would like to ask her why she hated us so much. The women in the palace said she was overcome by jealousy, that she was haunted by the memory of my mother, who was to remain perfect, the way only meek and sweet dead queens can be. I personally think that this is only part of the story. I think she really wanted to make something of herself; to have agency, to run things around the palace, but she learned quickly enough that it is not going to happen. She had enormous energies and she couldn’t do anything, so she turned to witchcraft. Those are basically the two choices we women have; to be sweet and silent, or be a witch that can turn people into birds.
Truth is, I sympathize. I, like her, am a prisoner in this old and utterly un-politically correct book of fairy tales. I, like her, would have loved to have other alternatives. So in the meantime I sit here and weave coats of nettle leaves, and keep silent and bite my lips, waiting for someone to read my story and free me from my vow of silence.
Dedicated to the heroine of the tale of the six swans (or the three ravens). To read the tale, click here: http://www.angelfire.com/me3/muppets/Story_ThreeRavens.html)
The thing with fairy tales; one needs to read them several times. The first time you just read it to enjoy the story; the trials and tribulations, the twists and turns in the plot, and finally, the happy end (in most cases). Then you read it again and get all worked up about the misogynistic point of view and how female protagonist are always destined to be either a wicked witch or a sweet and angelic – and often clueless – young girl with not an evil bone I her body. And then you have to read it again and look for that which remains unsaid, and look for the gaps and wholes, and subvert the story and make it your own. That’s what I did. I looked for what remains untold; I looked for what was absent; I looked at the context in which this story was originally told, and then at the context in which I am reading it now.
Folk tales were the newspapers and talk shows of the days of old. They addressed everything that was on people’s mind: money, class and social stratification, fatal diseases and other perils, power struggles, loneliness and being orphaned, love and passion. The storytellers took the stories from one place to another, omitted or emphasized certain pieces as they saw fit. The storytellers broke the silence for those who needed them to do so. They did what they could within a system where wealth and power were the birthright of rulers who often lacked vision and resourcefulness.
I’ve been dwelling on this story for quite some time now. I mean what do I, an eloquent and hot-tempered woman, have to do with this meek and mute princess? Well, maybe I, who passionately insists that silence is not an option need to understand that sometimes, for some women, silence is the only option. Maybe I need to appreciate that being able to speak is a privilege. And what do I, the Jewish mother who dotes over her children, have to do with a witch of a step-mother who loathes her step-children? Because I, too, wonder around mumbling to myself when I do not know what to do with all that energy, this desire to make a difference. I need to converse with the witch and the princess because they both are a part of who I am. And I would venture and say that they are a part of what every woman is. There are very few wicked witches or meek princesses in the world. There are many women who, like me, are looking to find their voice somewhere in the middle, between these two impossible extremes. Being either of them condemns you to horrible loneliness. Many women in this world strive to create a world of possibilities.
Epilogue: writing with a shaky hand
Using the keyboard rather than the pen did not take away that shiver in my hands. I’ve learned to recognize it, that sense of unease when wondering out of the comfort zone; when writing touches the bare, vulnerable skin; when the political is so personal; when I have something to loose, and that’s scary.
Because words matter, and they should. Especially at a time when words are abused; when politicians talk themselves to death. Words matter, especially at a time when public discourse is so toxic and thorny, just like the nettle leaves from which the mute princess is weaving the coats for her brothers. Maybe she’s keeping silent because she wants nothing to do with this toxic discourse. Maybe she knows that when she does speak up, she’ll do it her own way.