Many great storytellers have come and gone, each reimagining the classics and influencing entire generations’ perspectives on the “truth” of a tale, how a story should be spun. Each of these remarkable wordsmiths has managed to harness a subtle magic, introducing age-old epics to their latest audience. Walt Disney. Rick Riordan. Gregory McGuire. Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. These will live on as masters of their craft, remembered for their unique approaches to stories we all thought we knew and had perhaps forgotten.
My name will not ascend among the stars, legendary for my retellings. Though, perhaps my stories are the most famous of all. It may not read this way from the outside, but I don’t seek to reimagine the tales I encounter. I live them. And in this case, the truth is more fantastic than fiction.
I’ve had many names. The burdens of near-immortality. People tend to look a little too closely at someone who never changes, not their face or manner or name. Currently, it’s Alex. As good a name as any other, I suppose. But it isn’t the one the world knows me by. It isn’t even one of them.
Everyone thinks they know the story of Cinderella. From the European adaptations, to every legend around the world, from the classic cartoon to the many, many modern retellings. She’s an archetype for a reason. Few would expect to learn that Elle, from a small, poor village in a less than idyllic region of rural Europe would one day rise above her station, but not because of fairy god mothers or glass shoes. Terribly impractical, but every story needs a memorable detail. No, Elle managed to change her fate through no small amount of hard work, and even more luck.
Back then, they knew me as Jackie. No, I wasn’t a mouse. I was, however, the local stable hand. And I was inescapably infatuated with the pretty serving girl who lived in the largest house in the village, though it was hardly impressive considering the average size and economic status of the town. Largest meant two stories and more rooms than the inn.
Elle had a sad sort of charm about her. Though she remained hopeful and polite on the surface, something in her eyes always hinted at hidden depths of pain. Shortly after befriending her, I learned a little of the cause behind that pain. The loss of her parents was only the beginning. Unfortunately, the trope that all heroes tend to be orphans rings true more often than is fair. And her step-mother was wicked. But it was more than simply forcing a young girl to play maid in her own home. The lady of the house distained everyone, from lowly stable hands and burdensome wards to her own blood daughters. I half believe the only reason Elle’s step-sisters didn’t join her in servitude was because they were utterly useless. When her step-mother wasn’t physically or verbally abusing Elle, she completely ignored her, sometimes neglecting her for days at a time, only remembering to care for this young girl when she needed some chore done.
One might see such neglect as a reprieve from such harsh treatment, but Elle grew up surrounded by love and the sudden shift to cold loneliness was almost as traumatic as the beatings. At least, the rare times she talked about her early childhood, she seemed to only remember the good, casting a gold hue on what was probably an average existence, full of love yes, but also likely hungry nights and arguments about how to pay rent. Elle’s family may have been better off than most, but even that privilege came with a cost. And of course, her step-mother did all she could to squander anything Elle’s father might have left her. Another reason to co-opt a child in your care into free labor.
Elle’s step-mother didn’t like her leaving the house, so though I was madly in love with her, I didn’t see Elle very often. We were friends, yes, but often from a distance. I hated the way her family treated her, her step-mother’s abuse and her step-sisters’ dull indifference. I’m sure the girls were only too glad to have another target for their mother’s foul moods, but both were older than Elle and yet, did nothing to shelter a girl who was otherwise alone in the world. I offered her what refuge I could, but penniless and without standing myself, there was little I could do. I’d already earned a bit of a reputation in the village for causing trouble, and if I wanted to eat, I couldn’t afford to lose my job. I could only daydream of nobly rescuing Elle from her horrid life, but I had nothing to back it up with.
Then, the local prince (again, not a totally impressive title considering the depression of the rural land) returned from his service in the army and was in the market for a bride. He didn’t actually invite every eligible maiden in the land. It was more like working down a list of prominent families from each village or town. Records back then were scarce and outdated at best. So, the invitation was actually addressed to Elle. Not that her step-mother let that get in her way. She was desperate to find a new source of income and return to a life of marginally improved poverty. Elle watched as she wrote the prince’s chamberlain a tearful letter explaining that her beloved step-daughter had recently passed, but that she and her other two daughters would be more than happy to pay their respects to the prince.
Elle hadn’t seen the prince’s feast as an opportunity for escape from her life. She sort of condemned herself to her fate long ago. But it still stung when her step-mother barred her access to one night of freedom. And it terrified her that she was legally dead. Nothing was stopping her step-mother from one day going too far and making that lie a reality. No one would miss her. Well, except me. But Elle didn’t see me that way. She enjoyed my company, but never showed deeper interest than that. Sometimes I wonder if she believed she would be a burden on me as well, just like she saw herself to her step-family.
Listening to Elle’s misery and fear broke my heart. I may not have had anything to offer her, no way to ease her pain, but I knew who did. The prince may not have been as grand as the stories say, but at least he wasn’t her step-mother.
Everyone in the village knew Elle. Most pitied her, but kept their distance for fear of her step-mother’s wrath. Or maybe they just thought her severe misfortune was contagious. But through the power of charisma, heavy guilting, and a few veiled threats, I got the local seamstress, Marie, to rally the townspeople to Elle's aid. Marie crafted an elegant blue gown, not quite as shimmering or revealing as the movies depict. Gerard, the cobbler, made a delicate pair of leather and wool slippers (much easier to walk in than glass). And I groomed my best horse to pull a small cart I stole from the pumpkin patch on the edge of town.
We kept our surprises a secret and waited from Elle’s step-family to depart for the feast. Then I snuck into the house and paused, realizing I didn’t know where Elle’s room was. But I didn’t need to worry long. She strode glumly in from the garden behind the house. When she saw me, she was startled.
“What are you doing in here? If Step-mother ever found out…”
“Shh.” I grinned. “I have something to show you.”
She looked at me warily. “Jackie, I don’t think that’s the best idea.” She thought I was whisking her away to some romantic interlude. And I thought I’d been subtle about my feelings. If only.
“Just trust me.” I tugged on her arm until she followed. While I’d been inside, the villagers gathered in the courtyard out front.
“What is all this?” Elle gasped when she saw the dress, the cart, the slippers.
“You’re going to that feast,” I told her simply.
She shook her head. “I can’t. Step-mother will see me and then I… I don’t know what she’ll do.”
“She won’t do anything. Not in front of the prince. Especially not if the prince chooses you.”
Elle laughed without humor. “Why would the prince even notice me?”
She didn’t see what I saw. “How will you ever find out if you don’t try? Besides, have a meal you don’t have to cook, on dishes you don’t have to wash, for once. Maybe you’ll even have fun. And then you can come back and be miserable again tomorrow. You can even start at midnight, if waiting for dawn is too much for you.”
She couldn’t fight a small smile. “I don’t enjoy being miserable, you know.”
“Oh I will after Step-mother catches me.”
But she took the dress and slippers anyway. Marie joined her to help her change. When she emerged, I had no words, not a common occurrence for me. Everything about her, from her clothes to her hair, worn loose for once, to her slight change in demeanor, enhanced what I already found beautiful about her.
I drove her to the feast myself, and though she implored me to stay and attend with her, I knew sneaking her in was already pushing our luck. Besides, she needed to catch the eye of the prince and she wouldn’t with me in the way.
The rest is history. Or fantasy? Elle found her prince, who saw all the same things in her that I did, or so I assume, since he proposed to her that night. She didn’t run, didn’t lose a shoe, no one’s toes were cut off or eyes eaten by birds. Her step-mother did try to worm her way into her step-daughter’s good graces and mooch off of her elevation in status, abandoning her own daughters to their own devices. Elle let her until the day the old harpy died. Then she invited her step-sisters to the prince’s manor and tried to repair their relationship, or at least ensure the simpletons didn’t starve to death.
Did they live happily ever after? I don’t know. Shortly after returning to the village to retrieve her step-sisters, Elle announced she was pregnant. That was the last I heard from her. I left the village in search of a new start elsewhere. It held little appeal for me without Elle, and I knew somewhere out there, I could find a job where I made at least half of enough to feed myself. But I never forgot her. Hard to when her story became legendary. Even if it’s mostly wrong.
I noticed that in every village, forest, port, or kingdom I found myself in, something memorable always eventually happened. Maybe it was fate or maybe when you live long enough, even the mundane becomes remarkable. Sometimes I wish I could set the record straight on the more fantastical details of the stories I’ve seen.
We weren’t dwarves. I’m not even that short. And our names weren’t character traits. My name was Gerri. We were miners. It paid more than working in a stable. Our runaway friend fell into a coma. I don’t know what caused it. No one ever woke her.
He didn’t have godly strength, but Heracles wasn’t a wimp either. The twelve trials were real, no multi-headed creatures involved. He was an athlete. But he earned his fame as a hero. I should know. It was my hide he saved. More than once.
My son never slayed a dragon. Dragons aren’t real, but man, would it be so cool if they were. His name was in fact Prince Phillip. He did wake a sleeping maiden. Or well, resuscitated her after she was suffocated by a malevolent witch in our kingdom. The witch was burnt at the stake.
My surname was never Hood. No one’s is. But I am a crack-shot with a bow. My men were less merry and more…odorous. They enjoyed stealing more than bathing. We didn’t give to the poor. Once you’ve lived as royalty, going back to penniless is tough.
I wasn’t a child anymore, but I wouldn’t say I wasn’t lost. Everyone finds themselves lost at one point or another, and an endless life had only provided me with more opportunities than most. I did know a boy called Peter. He aged, just like the rest of…well, them. But even when he became a man, his energy and youthfulness, his vigor for life, never waned. A pirate killed him.
I learned many trades. Hat making was one of them. But there was also horse grooming, fencing, mining, sailing, carpentry, climbing, map-making, treasure hunting, weaving, cooking, singing, acting, policy-writing, archery, flying, painting, computer coding, driving, writing, and so many more.
There aren’t other lands out there. This is the only world we’ve got. But, that isn’t to say some corners are far stranger than they appear. I’ve seen cities oxidized to a shiny green, valleys filled with mushrooms taller than me, and more odd, eccentric, and possibly supernatural people than I could fill a hundred books with.
Who would believe me? Nowadays, I’d just come off as another author reimagining the greats, the classics, like so many before me.
So I keep traveling, on the lookout for the latest story, the latest life than might one day find itself repeated so many time it becomes cannon in the minds of men. And I laugh and sigh and shake my head at everything they get wrong. I sigh a little more at all they get right, at the truths that come through centuries of retellings.