The two children loved each other so much that they always held hands whenever they went out, and when Snow White said, “Let us never leave each other,” Rose Red answered, “Never, as long as we live.”
—“Snow White and Rose Red,” Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
In a time that was different from our own, but also the same, there were two cottages that stood side by side. In each cottage lived a girl with her parents.
Everyone in the village called the girls beautiful. Each of their mothers thought it to be true, but they saw it in the girls’ hearts and not just in the glow of their skin, the luster of their hair, and the brightness of their eyes.
One girl was named Red Rose, the other Snow White. Red Rose had skin the color of the earth after a rainstorm, rich and dark. Snow White had skin that looked like fallen snow on a quiet evening when the woods are still.
Red Rose’s hair was more brilliant than the boldest flower and redder than blood. Snow White’s hair was darker than the ebony of her mother’s sewing frame but not quite as dark as night.
Red Rose’s eyes swirled with the brown feathers of owls, specked with gold. Snow White’s eyes swam with the blue-green of forest pools, laced with silver.
Their hearts pulsed for the other. While the branches of blood that carried breath to the tips of their fingers and toes were only saplings, their love was as ancient and deep as the roots of the forest’s oldest tree.
Their mothers had known each other since their earliest days and the girls grew up like sisters. In front of Red Rose’s mother’s cottage there was a white rose tree and in front of Snow White’s mother’s cottage a red rose tree, and so it seemed to everyone that the girls’ friendship was destined from birth, lines of love having reached from the roots of each tree to the mothers and the infants in the womb.
In the evenings, when the men would come home from working in the fields, the two families would spend time together, telling stories and sharing games, near the hearth in the winter and in the garden in summer.
When they could spare time in the daylight, the girls’ fathers took them to the woods and taught them to read the signs of the trees, the brooks, and the animals. Snow White caught on faster, and she would always help Red Rose. In the garden between the cottages, the mothers grew healing herbs. They would create special mixtures—teas, salves, and tinctures—to sell at market. The mothers passed this wisdom on to their daughters. Red Rose better understood the subtleties of the art, and she would always help Snow White.
When given free time, the girls roamed the wild woods together. They picked red berries, and purple, and green ones that were tart and not ready to eat. The stags guarded them from a distance, and if night fell a fawn would lead them to a soft patch of ground. Their mothers trusted the forest and did not worry. The fathers trusted their teaching and did not fear. The girls trusted each other.
At fifteen, Snow White and Red Rose kissed each other, shyly at first, and then more boldly. The sun shone on their kisses, and the moon glowed on their embraces. In the morning, the wind blew the leaves of their soft bed to the four directions. The rain washed the berry stains from their fingers of earth and snow. Once in a very rare while, a rainbow appeared, slivers of color visible through the gesticulating branches of the tall trees. The rainbow’s red was dull in comparison to Red Rose’s hair, but violet delighted them. They would smile and turn to each other, nose to nose, long locks of black night and rose red hiding their secret conversations from the forest birds who looked down at them from their perches in interest.
One day a messenger, carrying a pronouncement on a scroll of paper, came to their village. The prince of the land had declared war. On who, the messenger did not know. All able-bodied men were required to leave the village to join the prince’s army immediately.
The families of Red Rose and Snow White were shocked. Their men had to leave. The mothers and Red Rose and Snow White helped them prepare for their journey. The girls braided small locks of their hair together as good luck tokens for their fathers. Their mothers put the small braids into lockets and sewed them into the shirts of their husbands. The two men packed their bags with munitions and food. With tears in their eyes, they left their loved ones behind them.
They did not return.
News of Red Rose’s father came first. Her mother laid her head in Snow White’s mother’s lap and cried and cried. Red Rose sat listlessly in the doorway, listening to her mother heave and gasp and cry out in anger. Snow White took Red Rose by the hand and led her to the edge of the woods, to sit on a flat smooth stone by a brook, where they had played as children. Snow White told Red Rose it was alright to cry. Red Rose said she couldn’t, and Snow White looked at her dark sad eyes and saw it was true. Rest here, said Snow White, patting the place above her heart. Sighing, Red Rose leaned over and closed her eyes. Before long, Snow White could tell from the uneven rise and fall of her chest and the ragged rhythm of her breath that Red Rose had fallen into a troubled sleep without dreams. She did not wake her, only putting a hand to her cheek, wished her something better.
A year later the wind, in the form of a tired young man, carried the same news about Snow White’s father. The messenger, little more than a boy, traveled from village to village, widowing with every other word that fell from his mouth. Exhausted from such speeches, he was barely conscious by the time he arrived at the cottage with the red rose tree in front. Through his hazy, sleepy vision he saw such a wondrous scene—two maidens of unearthly beauty, sitting together in a garden—that he awoke with a start. His horse whinnied and stamped one of its hooves. The girls, seated in the herb garden they tended between the two cottages, turned to see the cause of the noise.
The messenger saw the glowing details of his vision, a maid of blood and earth alongside a maid of night and snow.
Red Rose’s mother saw the messenger from her window. She put down her sewing and walked to the door, ready to comfort her oldest and dearest friend. The messenger took one step toward the garden, and Snow White was off, like a startled hare, running fast to the forest. Red Rose quickly jumped up and ran after her. In the woods, the heavy golden light of dusk was falling, making the shadows of the trees long, and Snow White only a glimmer as she darted between the trees.
Snow White was faster than Red Rose and she knew the woods better. Red Rose had to turn back before all was dark, while Snow White continued running, her feet, stealthy and light, traversing gnarled tree roots, stones, and clumps of earth as if it were all a smooth, flat plain, or the still surface of a pond on a windless night, when all the insects and fish are dead.
Red Rose walked back to the cottages slowly, a heavy stone in her heart and one on each foot weighing her down. It was so hard for her to move that she thought night would come and go and the sun would rise again before she made it back home.
But only a few stars had come out when she reached the cottages, small under the vast darkening blue sky. The windows of her home were dark, but the windows of Snow White and her mother’s cottage flickered with firelight.
Inside, on a rocking chair, sat Red Rose’s mother, with an overgrown doll on her lap. The doll’s legs dangled over one of the rocking chair arms, and its head rested lifelessly against Red Rose’s mother’s shoulder. As Red Rose drew closer, she saw it was not a doll but Snow White’s mother, asleep, her face encrusted with snot and tears, tears that had traced disappearing brooks and rivulets all down her gown.
Red Rose’s mother turned to look into her daughter’s eyes. Red Rose shook her head ‘no’ and went to sit by the fire. She stared into it unblinking for hour after hour. Her mother rocked slowly, gently, back and forth.
The next day the two mothers and the daughter scoured the woods for Snow White. Red Rose knew it was useless, Snow White knowing not only the paths trod by people, but the secret ones of the animals, of the deer and even the smaller creatures. Red Rose had followed her numerous times along passages invisible to human eyes, with dark green hanging leaves and elegant twisting branches. In the summer, they shared the paths with the fireflies who spoke to them in sparks and illumination. In the winter, they strove to walk just right so that the soft, smooth snow wouldn’t crunch beneath their feet.
Snow White’s knowledge of the wild woods had surpassed their fathers’ teaching. The men had taught the girls about the seasons, the flow of water, and the hiding places of animals and birds. Snow White walked in places only she could see, and Red Rose could not find these paths. She had only ever paid attention to Snow White. Without a gleam of black hair and a lithe body to follow, Red Rose did not know where to go.
She knew Snow White could stay hidden, sleeping on beds of bright, soft moss, drinking from sacred springs, and eating the berries they had hunted for as children, red, purple, and green. She would find the roots that the animals ate and search for mushrooms in the darkest earth.
Snow White, Red Rose knew, would not come home until she was ready to, when the woods had soothed her grief.
But she could not speak this truth, because Snow White’s mother looked pale and hopeless. So for days and days they searched the forest. The boys who had been too young to go to war helped them and the old men and the women whose children were old enough to look after themselves for an hour or two.
But the day came when the villagers had to leave the woods and return to their fields and trades and children. Then the searchers were the two mothers and daughter again. Finally, it was only Red Rose who could go, because Snow White’s mother was tired and Red Rose’s mother stayed at the cottages to look after her.
Red Rose knew she searched for Snow White in vain, but still she continued. If she stopped moving through the trees, she would simply sit in her doorway thinking of Snow White by day and lie staring at the roof, sleepless, at night. It was better to search so hard that sleep, by nightfall, was inevitable.
She remembered a spot from their childhood, a great oak and nearby it a hazel tree. There between the trees they had slept on a warm summer night. In the morning, when Red Rose woke up, Snow White told her about the fairies she had seen at dawn. Red Rose didn’t believe her, but Snow White insisted they were real. They were the same shade of green as the tiniest leaf on a newly sprouted plant. Red Rose closed her eyes and tried to envision them dancing on the hazel branches the way Snow White described, like grasshoppers with butterfly wings, able to hop and flutter from branch to branch.
Red Rose was pondering this image with her eyes closed when Snow White kissed her cheek and ran away, but only far enough to hide behind the oak tree.
Every day Red Rose searched for this spot, certain it must be where Snow White was hidden. She wondered how and why Snow White could stay away from her for so long. If her heart was breaking, wasn’t Snow White’s as well?
Then one morning, Red Rose could not leave the cottage or even her bed. The stones had returned to her heart and her feet and they were heavier than before.
That night, Red Rose and her mother heard a horrible shriek. Red Rose’s mother raced outside, and Red Rose, tumbling out of bed, followed. There was a great bear standing on its hind legs at Snow White’s mother’s door. Snow White’s mother, having lost her legs in terror, was clinging to the doorframe. Red Rose’s mother hurried toward the animal; her daughter followed cautiously. The bear looked like it was carrying a long, narrow sack of flour, but as Red Rose approached she saw the sack had pale white feet and a dirty white dress and long dark hair that melted into the surrounding darkness.
It was Snow White hanging limply in the bear’s paws.
What have you done to my child? Snow White’s mother would have asked if she could speak, but all that gurgled up from her throat was a gasping noise as if invisible hands were choking her.
Red Rose’s mother continued walking toward the beast. It growled. Red Rose’s mother flinched, but kept moving. It growled again and this time she stopped, for she and Red Rose and Snow White’s mother thought they heard words beneath the low gravelly tones of the growl. Again, the bear spoke. And what it said was, I did not hurt her.
Another gasp escaped Snow White’s mother’s throat and she collapsed in the doorway, her chest heaving with sobs. The bear took a step toward her, but Red Rose’s mother stopped the animal’s approach, reaching a hand out to grab its large paw, the fur so thick and long that her hand seemed to disappear. The bear bowed its head and carefully placed Snow White in the arms of Red Rose’s mother. Stepping backward, away from the light of the doorway, the beast morphed into a looming, bulky shadow.
Red Rose’s mother carried the girl to her mother. Gently, she placed her in her friend’s arms and lap. Calmly she said, Look, Snow White is breathing. She is only in a deep sleep. Put your hand on her heart. Her chest goes up and down.
Red Rose stood still. The stones on her feet turned into water and gushed away into the earth. The stone in her heart turned to water, and waterfalls gushed from her eyes. From her throat came a croak like an ancient toad’s, and she gasped and was able to breathe as she had not been able to breathe since news of her own father’s death. She remained standing, dressed in the dampness of her tears. When she remembered the bear, its looming shadow was gone. She went inside the cottage to watch over Snow White with the mothers.
They watched over Snow White all that night and the next day, and she slumbered deeply without waking. Red Rose only left her bedside to make a special mixture of herbs and flowers with which to bathe Snow White’s face and hands and feet. At dusk, Snow White awoke. Red Rose was holding her hand. Snow White asked, Red Rose, is that you?
I’m here my love, said Red Rose. Snow White smiled and tried to speak again, but couldn’t. She closed her eyes then, and grasped Red Rose’s hand strongly in return.
Deep inside Red Rose any lingering stone melted into water and joined her blood, and she could feel the warmth of the fire in the hearth on her skin once again. The cold that had spread from the tips of her fingers to the tips of her toes left her body. Her love had returned.
Late that night there was a knock on the cottage door. Red Rose’s mother unlatched the bolt and opened it. There stood the bear, dark and taller than the doorway. Snow White’s mother suppressed a yell. Red Rose’s mother put her hand out, fingers spread wide. The bear, understanding, stepped backward, and Red Rose’s mother went outside with it and was gone a long while.
When she returned, she told her daughter and her oldest friend what the bear had said. He had found Snow White on a moonless night sleeping near a dangerous precipice in the forest, feverish and speaking incoherently. He had picked her up and carried her to safety, treating her illness the best he knew how with the medicine of the woods. When her fever finally passed, she told him where to take her.
He wants a reward, said Red Rose’s mother. I had no choice but to agree. He wants us to help him whenever he should come to ask.
Done with what she had to say, Red Rose’s mother looked truly tired for the first time since Snow White had disappeared into the woods. They were all too tired for the bear’s request to trouble them.
Snow White’s recovery was slow. Red Rose took care of her, making special teas and salves. She could tell what ailed Snow White by the way her brow furrowed and the temperature of her skin; it was still difficult for her lover to speak. Red Rose’s knowledge of Snow White and her skill in herbal medicine made her a powerful healer. She had surpassed their mothers in ability. Snow White’s mother trusted her and only stepped in when Red Rose needed to rest.
Once Red Rose’s medicines had begun to work, Snow White’s speech returned, and there was great confusion. Snow White thought she had only spent one night in the forest. She did not remember a bear. When told how long she had been gone, Snow White’s face contorted with surprise and sorrow. She would never have left her family for so long, caused them so much worry, so much grief. But the time had passed, and Snow White clutched Red Rose in fear. Red Rose and the mothers soothed her. Their hearts were relieved and also fearful, but they asked her nothing more. They did not want the look of panic to return to her eyes.
Eventually, Snow White was able to leave her bed, and soon after she gained the strength to go out into the garden and warm herself in the sunlight. At first there was a timidness in her walk and gestures that greatly saddened Red Rose. Snow White had always been wilder and bolder, preferring running in the woods to tending the garden. But day by day she became less hesitant in her motions. Neither girl returned to the forest.
By the time fall came Snow White no longer carried fear with her. The winter was long, and when spring returned, Snow White and Red Rose, who were now women more than they were girls, longed for the woods. With the hidden trails under her feet once more, Snow White felt an old reassurance sink into her bones. She taught Red Rose how to find the secret paths. She showed her the way to the clearing where the great oak and the hazel tree stood. It was where she had slept the one night she could remember being gone.
In all those days of searching for Snow White, Red Rose had learned the woods better too. She had found the forest’s most potent medicines, growing near tree roots, resting in the moist spots of earth under stones, and creeping along stream banks. There was bark that steeped and made into a tonic could stop aches, leaves that ground into drinks could cause sleep, and lethal combinations of rare blossoms with berries. She showed Snow White where to find these plants and how to use them.
The young women shared their knowledge and themselves. Once more they made beds of the leaves and sought the lips, skin, and touch of the other. Their separation and return to each other had only made their desire burn brighter and their bond stronger.
Summer came again and the four women lived in harmony, though their hearts carried the shadows of the husbands and fathers they had lost. In the mothers this sorrow sank so deep that sometimes their bodies ached with it.
Summer turned into fall which turned into winter, and one night there was a knock at the cottage door. The four women were living together in one cottage for warmth and reassurance, as the winter was darker and colder than any that had come before. Red Rose unbolted and opened the door, and there was the bear. The women had discussed what to do if he ever came again. They could not know if he had told them truth or lies. They concluded they could only be obliging and on guard.
Red Rose welcomed the bear inside. The bear leaned his head down to fit through the door and seeing that the cottage ceiling was low as well, he lowered himself to all fours. Red Rose’s mother ushered him to the fire. She saw the icicles on his coat and knew that even with his thick fur he must be cold. Snow White stayed in a corner and watched.
He growled and the women listened carefully to hear his words beneath the gravelly tones.
I have come to claim my reward, said the bear.
What is your request? asked Snow White’s mother.
The bear, in his gravelly tones, seemed to sigh. To warm myself by your fire this cold winter, he replied.
The mothers, relieved, agreed.
From then on, the bear came every evening, and the women did not bolt their door shut until he arrived. Red Rose tried her best to be polite, while Snow White could only muster a calm seeming silence. It was their mothers who strove to engage the bear in conversation and make sure he was satisfied with the fire and their company. He told strange tales. He claimed he was a prince, under a magician’s spell. He said it was good they treated him kindly, because not all of his people had. He growled loudly that if their daughters knew who he really was, they would be sitting at his side, not off in the corner together. Then the young women would come closer to the bear, and to the fire.
Night after night the bear came and boasted of his triumphs as a man. The stories all became the same. His arrogance was tedious. The women did not know if he was man or beast, but they wished he would leave their cottage and not come back.
One evening their wish came true. Though the night was cold, the bear never came, and the door was left unbolted until morning. He did not come the following night either. Then, on the third night he knocked on the door after the women had gone to bed. Snow White unbolted the door, and he limped in slowly on all fours. As he approached the fire, Snow White saw that blood was trickling from his paws and snout.
We will take care of you, said Snow White, and she went to find one of Red Rose’s salves. The women gathered around the bear and tended to him. In the morning, he did not leave the cottage, but instead lay sleeping by the fire. Come evening, he explained himself.
My enemies have found me, the bear said. Will you let me stay here? I can no longer go outside.
The women agreed. They did not feel they had a choice, but they also felt sorry for him, with his bruised snout and wounded body.
Humbled by need, the bear spoke less and was not boastful. The young women tended to him, Red Rose instructing Snow White on the best way to dress and re-bandage the wounds. They cleaned and combed the bear’s fur. Snow White worked out the worst knots, while Red Rose made more of her salves and tinctures.
In a few weeks, warmer weather came, and the bear decided it was safe for him to go. He thanked Snow White, Red Rose, and the mothers for their kind care of him. He promised they would be rewarded in a tone that reminded them of his old boasts.
With spring, came news of the war. The messenger to the village reported that their prince had triumphed. The final battles had taken place very near to the village in the winter, in the nearby woods, when all else was still and cold.
For Red Rose and Snow White and their mothers, the war would always be lost because their fathers and husbands were gone. They consider whether the bear was the prince of their land. Did he, as a bear or a man, try to take Snow White from them long ago? Would he try again? All the four women want is peace, but they fear that a war won does not mean peace for them.
At midsummer there is a knock on the door of the cottage with the red rose tree in front. Red Rose opens the door and there stands a man, dressed in gleaming gold.
It is I, your bear, says the man. Your prince. I have come for Snow White. She will be my wife.
From where she is sitting in the cottage, Snow White can see the prince’s armed men outside. She does not run. Instead, she makes a request.
Can we travel by way of the woods? There are some beautiful, rare blossoms this time of year. I could weave them into a garland to wear on our wedding day.
The prince agrees, pleased to be able to humor his young bride and happy she envisions their union taking place so soon.
Snow White departs with the prince. Before she goes, Red Rose gives her a wedding gift, a basket of berries and herbs.
While Snow White travels, picking just the right blossoms, Red Rose helps their mothers pack for a long journey. At dusk, after a tearful goodbye, Red Rose heads to the forest.
In the falling light, she finds her way along the secret paths that Snow White has shown her. The moon rises and illuminates her journey.
At midnight, she finds the prince’s camp. Snow White is waiting in a pool of moonlight, drugged and sleeping soldiers lying on the ground before her. In a nearby tent rests a dead prince.
Hand in hand, Red Rose and Snow White make their way through the wild wood together. Their journey will be long, through the woods, across valleys, over mountains, but they will find their mothers and make a home once again.
Rachel Steiger-Meister is a doctoral candidate in English and Comparative Literature and Fiction Writing at the University of Cincinnati, with scholarly focuses in Irish folklore and fantastic literature. She is the winner of the 2013 storySouth Million Writers Award for best short story published online in 2012 and received Carve Magazine‘s Esoteric Award for LGBT-themed fiction. In 2011 Rachel served as guest fiction editor for the “Fairy Tales” issue of Lavender Review. She is a Charles Phelps Taft dissertation fellow for 2014-2015.
Artwork: Thomas Dodd, “Sisters in the Light”