I was the young king of my own fairytale-retelling now, and my queen was coming to kill me!
It was not always the case, though.
Before all of this had happened, I remembered being on my laptop, reading negative reviews and hate comments I had gathered throughout the years. Fun times! Reading the words of snobs who think they were saying something you didn’t already know really helped keep the writer’s blocks away.
Truth be told, they weren’t saying anything but the obvious to me. I knew that all the logical flaws that supposedly inspired my writing mean something: the folks’ wishes, the dreams of the people, all that worthless crap. I knew that all along. You had to know the rules before breaking them, didn’t you?
Those imbeciles! Had they sold a book, a single copy, in that miserable time they called life yet?? The kids could read the original tales as many times as they want. The adults, however, wanted something else. They wanted it to be dark, twisted, and new. They wanted the villains and the heroes to switch places, as “fairytales were written by the victors,” to quote a fan. And I should know. I had all the best-sellers, the award-winners, to back me up. It was just how the industry worked. It was just how life worked. I might be a liar and didn’t appear as innocent as I presented myself to be. But so what? I had to keep my image. The author was a brand nowadays. Established names sold printed copies; debut names hardly did the same.
Well, I could say all the retellings and twists and turns did stem from wishes and dreams: mine. I had always dreamed of owning that villa since my childhood.
I woke up in this bedroom, clad in royal clothes, surrounded by servants. It took me nearly half a day to understand my situation: I was in the middle of my unfinished manuscript – a retelling of the famous folktale “Tấm Cám.” As for how I knew this was not the original version? I had made a renowned comedian cameo in one side character. His humor was too modern for the original story.
Those of you who didn’t know, “Tấm Cám” was the Vietnamese version of “Cinderella,” with some changes. Some were mine, others weren’t. But let us focus on my excellencies. In the original fable, Tấm – the goody two shoes - was killed by her jealous half-sister and cruel stepmother. Then she just kept reincarnated, constantly taking on new, unnatural forms to come back to life. There were four of them: a talking oriole, two trees standing side by side, a talking weaving frame, and a beautiful woman walking out from a fruit. She then won the king over again in that overrated “happily ever after.”
Were there only four?? I couldn’t know since after she won the king back, she killed her stepmother and stepsister in the act of bloody revenge before they could do anything.
She was better suited to be a horror story villain than a fairytale protagonist. So I chose that idea as my starting point and worked from there. A vengeful, unstoppable, unkillable evil spirit taking the form of a sweet country girl would work perfectly.
I would have had to find a way to explain Cám’s reason behind killing Tấm, though.
In my retelling, Cám – the ugly and lazy half-sibling of the heroine – was a sorceress whose mother had sealed that evil spirit away in the body of an infant – Tấm. As her beloved sister grew up, the evil spirit grew more powerful until that faithful night – the prom – when it ultimately took control of the host. Tấm was gone, for good. And now, with new, dark ambition in mind, she went to the palace, seduced the young king – that would be the current me – with a spell left on one of her shoes, and become his queen. Desperate, Cám tricked the evil spirit and killed her. “The easiest way to create depth to a character is by whitewashing it,” – said my mentor. What wise words to live by!
I was pretty proud of this... how should I put it, new breath in an old story. But right now, I knew it was not the end. The evil spirit was coming, and my best bet would be the sorceress I created.
Cám was crowned the new queen the next day after her sister’s demise, and the kingdom cheered. It should be no problem at all. This happened in the original version, too. The king’s – or should I say my – servants were more than happy that their old queen was gone. I overheard how thrilled they were that the sun shone on the palace once again. The sky above was clear, and no dark clouds gathered in a hundred miles radius. Cám put a protection spell on the whole capital and even burnt down the place where Tấm used to live. Yet, I could see the worries clouded her eyes. It seemed like we both knew the event that took place a couple of days ago wasn’t the end of her sister.
I regretted planning a tragic ending for this novel. It would definitely have helped with the sales, but I have my own life to worry about now that I’d been sucked into this world…
Days had gone by, and the talking bird had not shown up yet. The long wait burnt my confidence away, bits by bits, and I grew wary that things might not pan out as planned. Yet, life must go on, and the kingdom needed its ruler. I couldn’t hide in my room forever now, could I?
Immediately, I was knee-deep in reports, all of which I had to read through and made decisions upon. The responsibilities weighed me down as if a dozen elephants had just decided to start their own circus on my back. At least half of the reports reminded me of my early query letters. The officials wasted paragraphs after paragraphs just to show that they could write beautifully and use fancy words. Why couldn’t they get straight to the point?
The job sucked; the responsibilities were even worse. But the palace and the servants were something I could get used to. My bedroom was twice the size of my entire apartment out there, and the servants didn’t even dare to talk back.
Cám bid me farewell just a month after our very much political marriage. She said she had to go to a goddess’s shrine to learn the evil spirit’s true identity. That was supposedly the only way to defeat Tấm. Or at least, that was what I had in mind while crafting the manuscript. She left a protection charm just in case and went.
The bird had shown up.
Or, to be more precise, it decided to make an appearance last night as I was up late doing my kingly duty. It hid behind a wooden beam near the rooftop, right in plain sight and under our noses this whole time.
In the original story, the king asked: “Oh oriole, if you are my dear wife, please nest in my sleeve.” I thought if I were to say nothing, then the story wouldn’t continue. No such luck!
The protection charm Cám had left fended off the spirit. I guessed it worked brilliantly. After getting hit by the spell, the oriole could not keep its harmless form and turned into a grotesque, distorted shape. A half-woman, half-bird abomination with throbbing veins and pulsating chunks of out of placed muscles was indeed a sight to behold. And to forget as soon as possible. The evil spirit tried to say something, but its voice was muffled by the spears of my guards.
I insisted that she be burnt until even her ash could not be found.
Unlike in the fable, I was not going to make the same mistake as her stepmother. She left some of Tấm’s feathers, and from that new life sprung. I, however, incinerated everything. The evil spirit wouldn’t be able to come back from that, would it? Still, could anyone blame her?? Not only was I a modern man, but I was also the author of this retelling. Knowing both what should and would happen gave me an unfair advantage over everyone else.
I patted myself on the back over this victory.
Perhaps staying and being a king in this world wouldn’t be so bad after all. And why would it? There was no vengeful spirit chasing after me anymore.
That had not turned out to be the case.
It had been nearly a month since I had to evacuate from the palace.
At the place where the evil spirit was taken down grew a pair of trees. It went from a sprout to sky-touching tall overnight, destroying the roof in the process. People started going insane here and there, claiming they could see a pale shadow hidden between the branches, hanging herself with a noose from her own hair. They said she whispered something to them in a language they could neither understand nor pronounce. Those poor souls went mad, and their lives were cut short, either by diseases or by suicide.
The information regarding this event couldn’t be contained. Terrified officials fled the imperial city while the worried people demanded an answer. It had become crystal clear either I had to do something about the damn tree, or we had to choose another capital.
Was there an escape, though?
Nothing was stopping the spirit from chasing after me now, was there?
A decision had to be made shortly afterward.
Sometimes a man had to face his fear.
I ordered the demon tree to be chopped down and burned the following day. What needed to be done had to be, sooner or later.
The tree spilled blood!
As the soldiers rammed their axes onto the tree, thick, red blood oozed out of it and spattered everywhere. The tree twisted and turned, its leaves rattled, making howling and crying sounds.
Tấm’s face manifested on the tree barks’ various spots, begging, threatening my soldiers to stop chopping. A woman face carved out of wood, hissing insults with her wooden tongue. A soldier tried to swing his ax to cleave the thing down, but it just moved to another part of the tree almost instantly to avoid the slash. How she managed to do all of that was beyond me. If I had learned something from my writing career, it would definitely be: sometimes, the best explanation was “it’s magic.”
The tree eventually fell, though.
And the screaming, hissing, cursing, threatening from that wooden face went silent.
She was cremated the second time. And this time, I was making sure that she wouldn’t be able to come back anymore. I ordered the ash of the tree is sealed away in four different pots, each of which buried in the four guardian shrines in each direction of the capital.
This should definitely be the last time I saw her!!
But, as it turned out, I couldn’t be more wrong, apparently.
Accidents happened every now and then. It was a part of life and what made it unpredictable, even to the brightest of minds.
But occasionally, accidents happened in such a way that makes you wonder if some force of nature or super-nature was working against you! A strong wind suddenly blew in the city that very day, knocking down the sealed pot. The ash of the tree scattered throughout the imperial city, turning everyone coming into contact with it into wooden statues with a zombie-like mentality. And this curse was infectious, just like a virus. In no time at all, the whole capital was overrun by these creatures.
There was no place to hide, no way to stop the madness that I created myself.
The evil spirit had found my hiding place.
The surrounding area was utter silent, indicating the demise of my guards.
The cloth that made the hut door was rolled up, then Tấm floated inside. Her skin was pale and had a blueish tint, her hair was wet and covered with mud, her eyes were all white, and her piercing gaze fixed upon me as if glued to my face. She came closer. Maggots wiggled happily from her rotten, swollen flesh – before falling all over me.
It was her corpse!
In both versions, traditional and mine, Tấm was killed by chopping down a betel tree she was climbing. She drowned in the pond in her old house.
I burnt her oriole body. I cremated her tree.
I had forgotten about her original corpse.
I screamed at her face, half panic and half angry. Was I always this brave?
“What do you want? Eh? What do you want?”
She remained motionless and silent.
“Look! I’m not who you think I am! I’m innocent! I’m not the king; I’m not who you’re looking for. Let me go! Please!”
I begged the corpse in front of me. Yes! I lied. But was I to blame?? I was sure that anyone in my position would do the same.
The corpse came closer and opened her mouth.
Her tongue was missing, her teeth were nowhere to be found. And yet, words escaped and echoed in my ears.
“But I know who you are... father. You created me this way, remember??”
What she said filled me with fear and panic.
“You don’t know what I wanted?? How strange. You must have known. You should have known. It was you who take it away from me from the first place: my innocence.”
She continued. Her face was unhinged. With all the rotten flesh and muscle, it was hard to express any emotion. Yet, her voice seemed joyful.
“All you had to do was right there in the book. Not yours, the fairy tale. Or are you too arrogant to admit their existence now, father? You just have to play along. But. You. Refused. You haven’t realized, have you? Too full of your ‘brilliance’ to notice? There was no evil spirit. What sealed inside me has been your ill intention all along.”
She stopped and looked down at me for the last time. Her eyes were all white, yet I could tell the despisal in her gaze.
The evil spirit, no, Tấm leaned down for one last whisper:
“Now, finally... I got the pen for a change. Wanna know what I’m gonna do with it? Do with you?”
I tried to scream, but the sound that came out was unrecognizable to my ears. My throat was muffled, filled with a taste I was already too familiar with: the taste of ink.
Tấm took hold of me and started to laugh – an agonizing laugh that sounded as if she was crying.
There was no more feeling from my waist down. A quick glanced at the mirror revealed why: Half of me was already a puddle of ink on the floor.
For a brief moment, before she faded away, she was herself again.
She was Tấm – the princess or the queen - as she was always supposed to be.
A great wrong was done to her. She was made into something she never wanted to be.
And all this time, all she had been doing was fighting back.
She wanted to be herself, her true self. She wished to be good. She wanted her innocence, the innocence that was cruelly ripped away from her, returned.
She wanted to speak the truth, her truth, to power that had gone and changed everything – her creator, the author – the man that had taken everything from her. And so, she did… at the cost of her very existence.
She left the world she was born into in a peaceful sadness…
“The evil spirit leaned in and whispered something to the young king. His eyes widened in fear and a dawning realization.
He screamed… a muffled scream.
The spirit laughed… a twisted and unnatural sound, almost as if it was crying itself.
The two sounds blended into one and echoed through the tiny hut as the spirit took hold of the king.
And then, both of them were no more…
As our story comes to an end, I have one last question for you, dear readers. I know who you are.
But what about you?
Do you know who I am??”
That was the ending of the newest best-seller from S.S. Manny, the author famous for his retelling of Vietnamese tales. The author himself was reported missing; no one seemed to know his whereabouts, with the detectives working on the case refusing to comment at this point. Already, fans had taken to the internet to decipher his confusing ending and speculate on potential sequels. Meanwhile, anti-fans claimed his disappearance as a publicity stunt and raged about his disregard for original source materials.
́́́Author's note: While this was the chosen prompt for submission, I thought I'd challenge myself a bit, so elements that could make this short story fit into other prompts are also presented, though they are up to interpretation.