Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood … ”
Sensing another presence in the room, I turned from my daughter’s bedside. My wife stood there in the doorway, arms crossed, casually leaning against the frame. The hallway sconces back-lit her silhouette and I admired her attractive shape as she strolled into the room.
I continued reading to the slumbering form. “As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow.”
“You know she can’t hear you, right?” my wife asked, snuggling up behind me on the chaise lounge. Resting her chin on my shoulder, she wrapped me in a warm embrace.
I smiled. We had been through this before. “Not true,” I answered, stroking the ridges of her knuckles.
“The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, ‘If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.’”
My thumb rubbed against a hard object. Glancing down, I noticed that in addition to her durable tungsten carbide wedding band, my wife was wearing her engagement ring. The two were utterly mismatched and she rarely wore them together, except on special occasions.
I fingered the cluster of diamonds, admiring their brilliant inner glow. I had selected the ring from a private jeweler’s elite Fairytale Collection, promising that it would be the beginning of our happily ever after together.
Heather, pragmatic to a fault, had actually laughed at that part of my proposal. I was mortified.
Despite countless rehearsals, my words, usually so eloquent and polished, lacked the poetry that I had envisioned and my cheeks had burned until the fear of rejection nearly paralyzed me.
Then, in a show of extravagant mercy, Heather folded her arms around the back of my neck and pressed her beautiful mouth to my own. I was too dizzy to remember much of what happened next, but I can still hear her words in my ear as I did that day. “My love, you are a hopeless romantic.”
And then she said yes.
Six months later, amidst the clatter of cans and the hastily scrawled letters JUST MARRIED hanging precariously from the bumper of my Subaru, Heather and I left the hustle of urbanization in the rearview mirror.
My transition was a no-brainer. I said goodbye to my editorial desk job and hello to the lifelong dream of becoming an independent author in the matter of a heartbeat. It took Heather, professor and mathematician extraordinaire, even less time to decide.
A month following our exodus found us comfortably cocooned by a forest of conifers at the end of a washboard gravel road. Deer and turkey abounded; people didn’t.
Our newly-acquired property bordered USFS land on one side and dropped abruptly into Lake Pend Oreille on the other. We were living the north Idaho dream and loving the seclusion of mountain living, made all the more doable by our weekly trips to Costco and addiction to locally-roasted coffee.
~ ~ ~
I felt Heather’s body expand and then contract with a sigh as she whispered now. “I remember the first time you read that story to her. She was sleeping then, too, and I thought you were … ”
“Crazy?” I ventured before she had a chance to supply an adjective that was less flattering.
Heather moved against me, chuckling. “Maybe just a little,” she conceded. I felt my body tremble as she traced my ear lightly. “But mostly,” she said, kissing my neck, “I thought you were … charming. Now, keep reading.”
Slightly disoriented, I continued obediently. “Soon afterward she had a little daughter who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood.” I reached down to stroke a thin wisp of raven-black hair from our little girl’s cheek, following the path of a wayward curl.
“And therefore they called her Snow-White. As soon as the child was born …” my voice broke and I tried again. “As soon as the child was born the queen … the queen … died.”
My eyes drifted to the window. The panes were frosted around the edges and thick clouds obscured both moon and stars. Squeezing Heather’s hand meaningfully, I brought it to my lips. “I remember, too. It was the night I almost lost you both.”
~ ~ ~
A frigid gust of wind followed Heather into the house as she stormed through the door. Removing the snow-covered balaclava, she gave her head a vigorous shake. A sudden-onset blizzard – the one they predicted would skirt to the north and miss our neck of the woods entirely – was hard on her heels. I stood by, anxiously waiting to lock up and batten down the hatches.
Despite my protests, Heather insisted on walking to the barn each and every night to check on our menagerie of animals, no matter the weather. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night would stay my wife from the swift completion of her appointed rounds. She would have excelled as a Postal Service worker.
Taking in the sight of her roly-poly figure, I couldn’t help myself. “Hey gorgeous … want to build a snowman?”
The joke had become a favorite of ours and usually sent her into a fit of estrogen-induced giggles, but one look at my wife’s face sent the blood draining from mine. “How long?” I croaked.
Wide-eyed, Heather stood staring at me, her mouth slowly forming an elongated O. Time stood still, drawing out into – well, a pregnant moment – until a slight, audible pop echoed in the space between us. With a reflexive jerk of her head, the breath she had been holding escaped in a rush … along with the fluid that her body had been retaining for the past thirty-four weeks. She brought a hand to her belly. “Not long enough.”
This can’t be happening. The baby is early. The roads are impassable. What should I do? We’re going to have a baby! Why won’t my legs move!?
“Sweetheart, everything is going to be fine,” someone said in a voice that sounded strangely like my own. “Our little princess is on her way.”
~ ~ ~
At the moment, a wrinkle was starting to form across our little princess’s forehead, scrunching into a frown with the puckering of pink, pouty lips. Leaning over my shoulder, Heather blew gently into her face and, as if by magic, the creases smoothed out.
Heather nudged me out of my sentimental retrospect. “But I didn’t die, did I?” When I failed to answer, she pressed, “Hey – I didn’t die.”
I shook my head, too choked up to speak. A year wasn’t long enough to diminish the debilitating fear I had battled that night.
My wife, on the other hand, had recovered beautifully and derived a most irrational pleasure in the retelling. “I’ll never forget how Doc Gallaway came to our rescue! Riding in on his mighty black charger to save the day … that has got to qualify for some kind of a fairy tale, right?”
“You know, your childhood was seriously deficient,” I chided. “An old, retired, neighbor vet driving in on a black Polaris hardly constitutes a fairy tale. But I guess you’re right,” I admitted. “He did, most definitely, save the day.”
“Well, a fairy tale-deficient childhood is certainly something this little girl will never have to worry about – not with you as a father. Now, skip to the ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall’ part!” Heather commanded in a tone that, I assumed, was supposed to be menacing.
Amused at her attempt, I turned the page. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who in this land is fairest of all?”
“Mmm … I love the way your voice sounds there.”
“Uh … excuse me?” I asked, baffled.
With a mischievous grin, Heather crawled around to nestle comfortably in my lap. “Yeah, you know,” she said, arching a finely tapered eyebrow, “when you try to be dark and sinister. I love that!”
Reaching up, she ran her fingertips along the stubble on my jaw. I could feel my eyes grow heavy and my neck flush hot. I could also feel myself blushing.
“Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t want to be married to a villain or anything!”
I struggled to open my eyes and murmured huskily, “Well, that’s a relief, because I kind of fancy myself as one of the good guys.”
Heather drew herself up, suddenly serious. “You are so much more than a good guy … you’re like … a hero.” Grabbing my shirtfront in both fists, her eyes bored into my own. “You’re my hero!”
Kissing me hard, she gushed more embarrassing praise, though I was sure there was more than a hint of sleep depravity driving her words.
“You have turned my world upside down – in the best of ways!”
“Heather, I – ”
“No, I’m serious. You have opened my eyes to beauty … wonder, and – yes! – the promise of a happily ever after that I never even knew was possible before I met you. Just look what we have created!” Following her downward gaze, I sat holding my wife while we watched our little princess slumber.
Sitting there in the dark – it could have been minutes, or hours – it seemed like an eternity before I mustered the courage to speak. “Do you know why I read fairy tales the night she was born?” I asked tentatively.
It wasn’t until I asked the question a second time that I realized Heather had fallen asleep in my arms. I sat quietly, content, but after a time I felt compelled to speak. I needed to say the words. Aloud.
“I was afraid … more afraid than I had ever been in my whole life.” It was awkward, but I just sat there, whispering into the silence. “Words. Physical strength. Determination. None of them were of any use to me that night,” I confided, releasing a stream of confessions.
The wind kicked up and I jumped at the sound of a branch tapping against the window. I felt stupid and exposed, but couldn’t stop talking.
“All night, as your life balanced precariously on the edge, I sat by your bedside and there was nothing I could say or do to bring you relief … or comfort. I have never felt so emotionally depleted in my entire life.”
At the memory, my breath faltered. “I was stripped bare and rendered completely … helpless.”
“And so I read. I read all my hopes and dreams for our daughter’s life … for our life. I read of struggles, of battles, of rescues … of tales with happily ever afters because above all, I needed you in mine.”
Heather stirred and, looking down, I saw that her cheek was wet. Caught in the reverie of pensive introspection, I sat staring, confused. When another drop splashed her face, I became aware that my tears had been falling.
Feeling the gentle brush of my hand against her cheek, Heather’s eyes fluttered open and she said dreamily, “Hello there, charming.”
Dashing a hand across my own eyes, I swear my heart swelled in my chest. Literally. “Hello there, beautiful.”
Stretching, Heather groaned. “Were you saying something?”
Kissing the top of my wife’s head, I allowed myself a small smile. “I was just telling our little princess about the night she came into this world. How it was dark, like tonight … but with the glimmer of snow falling white.”