Allene Nichols — “Shall I Compare Thee?”

Royal Decree

From the Office of Kingdom Standards

Memo #34576118

The kingdom has experienced a princess shortage in recent years. As a result, young princes have gone further and further afield in search of a bride. It has come to our attention that some of these young men are taking dangerous risks in the pursuit of “true love.” This decree delineates courting behavior to avoid due to its potential to cause harm to one or both of the people involved. Sadly, the need for caution has been underlined by instances of each behavior, which are also mentioned as an illustration of how NOT to proceed.

  1. Avoid kissing women lying about in the woods or in bowers who are unconscious or appear to be dead (the “Sleeping Beauty” incident). Martial arts classes are filling up quickly and many young ladies are well-prepared against being “awakened” by lip manipulation or CPR and will likely kick a prince’s butt into next week.
  2. Do NOT try to climb women’s hair (the “Rapunzel” incident) as this can result in death to the woman by broken neck or by falling from a tower. At the very least, it can upset the hair’s owner. Hair is anchored to a head, which is not intended to withstand the force of a body pulling on it. Ropes that are firmly attached to a stationary object are safer. (On a side note, if you are going to climb a rope, make sure that any thorn bushes have been removed from the area immediately below the rope in order to avoid being blinded should you fall).
  3. While taking a slipper house-to-house (the “Cinderella” incident) and trying it on everyone’s feet, is not dangerous per se, please note that it is futile, unhygienic, and can result in irrational behavior or unfortunate unions. First of all, there are only so many different shoe sizes, so it’s likely that the slipper will fit many people. If you swear to marry whoever the shoe fits, you may find yourself bonded for life to half the kingdom. Second, the sharing of shoes can result in a kingdom-wide epidemic of athlete’s foot. Third, those who really, really want to marry you may cut off their toes to fit the shoe, leading to the unhygienic sharing of blood as well as fungus.
  4. Do not pile twenty mattresses on top of each other and force the first waif that knocks on your door to sleep on them. Please be aware that women posing as princesses are usually con artists. With the falling number of princesses in the kingdom, it is natural to want a “real princess” test, but none exists. Princesses may be a bit spoiled and whiney, but their bodies are no different from those of ordinary women and they CANNOT feel a pea beneath a large number of mattresses. They can, however, sue you for damages should they fall off and break a leg.

Anyone caught engaging in any of these behaviors will be expelled from the kingdom and forced to spend their lives talking in rhyme to small children.

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Dear Giselle,

It’s been a year since I married Jess, and her daughter, Snow, still hasn’t adjusted to the marriage. She insists on calling me “the evil queen.” I tell her that I’m not a queen, and “the evil dyke” would work better. She just pouts and rolls her eyes. She tells me she that marriage can only be “between a man and a woman.” Where do kids get this stuff? I mean, what about the troll and the mermaid down the road? Neither one is human, so not technically men or women, and do trolls have a gender? I even hear there are seven dwarves living in a polyamorous situation near here. I don’t know that she’s ever seen a married man and woman. Only our dear Prince Harry seems intent on marrying a woman, but so far, he’s been punched, blinded, cut by a broken glass slipper, and sued.

In spite of Snow’s tantrums, our little family has settled into a routine. Since Jess got the commission to paint the royal family, she’s been leaving early to catch the best light. I make sure Snow gets off to school before I head to my shop. I’ve been restoring a number of lovely old mirrors lately. Some of them are a bit chatty, but they’re always pleased when I buff them. Jess usually has dinner ready when I get home, and after dinner, the three of us play board games or go for a walk. The lady next door grows the sweetest smelling onions. We often see her and her partner up in their tower room, combing each other’s hair. It’s a pretty good life.

Until Next Time,
Shanika

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Rapunzel

Her hair flows like lava from the tower window,
and her thick fingers weave my pale locks
into her own, so that they flow down intertwined.

We are rock and wheat.

When I tell her that I will bury her lithe
body in the woods and remember her always,
she laughs. She is barely fifty, her ancestors,
crones all, lived to almost twice that age,
while my line of crystal princesses
slid early into “happily ever after” and dust.

We are rock and wheat.

She says she fears she will grind me into
dull powder with her desire. I fear my
feather soft touch will not move her.

Deep in the forest lies a flat stone.
Moss grows thick on it. It is our wedding
bed, and when we lie there, she
winds our thick hair around us
to keep us warm.

We are rock and wheat.

She knows how to keep us warm, keep
us safe. She knows how to move
within me so that I cease to flutter
in the wind, so that I grow still. She knows
how to carry my bulk like a tiny seed
in her hand.

I love her because she does not think me
beautiful.

I heard tell of a girl whose step-mother
envied her beauty and sent her
into the woods to be murdered. I think
this is a lie. Beauty is a bauble,
insubstantial against the rich loam
of experience.

There was a prince once, who thought
only of beauty and wailed by my window.
We pitied him. We wove a spell
in our thick braids, and let it down
from the tower wall. It was moonlight
blinded him. We heard rumors of some
shepherd lass caught up in the spell,
whom he called by my name and wooed
on moonlit nights. She tamed him,
I hear, and he now watches her flocks.
I saw her in town a fortnight ago,
and her waist was thickening.

My lover runs her hand over
my flat belly. She would deny
me nothing. With her, I grow inward,
deep, my roots expanding.
I grow in her crevasses
and force them open wider.
Sometimes she weeps,
not because I am beautiful,
but because we are poetry.

We are rock and wheat.

She sleeps now. The sweet smell
of wild onions rises from her body.
Her ropy hands move beneath
the cotton sheet, shelling dream peas,
perhaps, or carding ghost wool.

I am restless with the moon’s touch.
I will slip out of the tower,
climb down her hair, and tiptoe
into the woods. I will bathe to cool
my burning flesh. Perhaps later,
she will come to me, and we
will blaze together.

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The Town Cryer

Amber Alert: Mr. Cho Senior, the owner of the Swine and Beer Pub, reports that his son Elton is missing. Elton was last seen tending bar while his father bragged to an odd little stranger that Elton was the best spinner in the kingdom and could spin thread so fine that it looked like strands of sunshine. Elton is about 5 feet 10 inches tall and has a slight build. He was last seen wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt with the words “Swine and Beer Pub” on it. If you have any information regarding the whereabouts of Elton, please contact Mr. Cho, Senior immediately.

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Royal Decree

From the Office of Kingdom Standards

Memo #34576570

While the majority of citizens are model parents, several unfortunate incidents have forced us to reiterate some basic childcare principles. While children can be trying, it is important to watch out for their safety in order to ensure that the kingdom prospers. To this end, the following list outlines behavior to avoid or encourage when raising children.

  1. Do not abandon your children in the woods (the “Hansel and Gretel” incident). While they may merely die of starvation or be eaten by a witch, it is also possible that they will return, filled with rage, and wreak havoc, not only on their parents, but on the entire village. Or they will become feral and you will find them howling at your door one night. (On a side note, do not cook and eat children. Evidence suggests that they are quite tasty, but this is cannibalism, which is strictly outlawed.)
  2. Teach your children not to break and enter (the “Goldilocks” incident). Homeowners are likely to react badly. Should your child fall from a second floor window while fleeing from said homeowners, you will be responsible for all medical bills. Furthermore, as the child’s parents, you will be considered liable for eaten food, broken chairs, and messed-up beds.
  3. If your child MUST wander the woods alone (the “Red Riding Hood” incident), make sure that they wear colors that do not draw attention to themselves, cover all food, and do not talk to strangers. Our concern should not be construed as victim blaming. We merely wish to ensure that children are not eaten alive by hungry predators, who tend to flaunt the laws of the land. A brown cape, Ziploc bags, and lessons on “stranger danger” are cheaper, in the long run, than a murder investigation and a funeral.
  4. When your child lies (the “Peter and the Wolf” incident), take it as a serious cry for help. A child who lies is too young to be left alone with a hillside full of sheep. Persistent lying can erode trust between neighbors and lead, in extreme circumstances, to depredation by wild animals.
  5. Beanstalks are a falling hazard and should not be climbed (the “Jack and the Beanstalk” incident). You can avoid this hazard by not tossing “magic beans” willy nilly. Should a sizable beanstalk appear, do NOT chop it down. In addition to destroying crops, homes, and the eastern half of the castle when the stalk lands, this action may cause the death of any large inhabitants of said beanstalk, creating a public health hazard as authorities struggle to determine how to dispose of the body.

Taking care of your children and teaching them not to commit crimes, large or small, and to be safe, will make your home, and our kingdom, a happy one.

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Dear Giselle,

Snow surprised me by coming by the shop today on her way home from her Taekwondo class. She was actually pleasant, at least at first. She was fascinated by the mirrors and how each reflected a different part of her personality. After staring at herself for a long time, she turned to me and asked if I thought she was beautiful. I replied that she was passing fair, but with age and experience, she might be beautiful like her mom. This angered her and she called me an ugly old witch. I shrugged it off. I’ve never considered myself to be particularly attractive, and I have no prejudice against witches, so it didn’t bother me. But Snow wouldn’t let it go. She turned to the mirrors and screamed, “Who’s prettier, her or me?” There was an awkward silence. The Giggly Mirror giggled uncomfortably. The Coughing Mirror coughed and went silent. Finally, the Logic Mirror spoke up: “Beauty isn’t a quantifiable quality. It is, literally, in the eye of the beholder.” Snow looked perplexed for a moment. Then she shouted “I hate you all” and stormed out.

Snow didn’t return home until late this evening. There was straw in her hair and she was disheveled. Jess had a fit. She suspects Snow of fooling around with some local lad, but Snow insists that she and her friends were just playing around in the barn. That worries Jess, too. A couple of Snow’s friends were recently lost in the woods and came back with some wild tale about a witch and an oven. They, of course, blamed the witch for everything. I’m afraid they’re a bad influence on our Snow. I can tell she’s aching for an adventure of her own.

I’d better get some sleep. A wealthy merchant is coming to my shop tomorrow. She might buy a few of my mirrors if I can keep them from being rude to her.

Love,
Shanika

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Royal Decree

From the Office of Kingdom Standards

Memo #34577892

Rumors have been flying that straw can, under some circumstances, be spun into gold. We assure you that this is fake news. The recent flooding of the market with gold has been caused by the normal fortunes of economics. It has, nevertheless, led to severe hardship for some our most vulnerable citizens. As straw cannot be spun into gold, area farmers who are reporting that animals are suffering from the cold due to the lack of straw for bedding are lying. They are providing grist for the rumor-mill in order to make the royal family look bad. The royal family, appalled at the greed that the kingdom’s citizens have exhibited at the influx of gold, has generously collected the excess gold and locked it away in their chambers. Until the economy re-stabilizes, please take extra care of each other and remember the poor. For instance, you might want to buy an extra match or two from the children who sell them.

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The Town Cryer

Editorial: The regular royal decrees coming from the Castle are a smokescreen to distract the citizens of the kingdom from the royal family’s disastrous financial and trade policies. The recent precipitous rise in taxes is the result of their failure to rule wisely. The royal family’s refusal to follow its own rules has led us to the brink of bankruptcy. They tell us to keep our children at home and safe, yet had the crown not allowed Prince Harry to keep a dangerous animal, he would not have had to dispose of the dragon when it reached adulthood, and the dragon would not have destroyed several hundred acres of apple orchards in the fight, leaving orchard owners in poverty and raising the price of apples. Citizens, do not let their memos blind you to the dangerous fiscal path they are leading us on.

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Rumpelstiltskin

Some fires cannot be fed.
Some desires cannot be quenched.

This boy, this man,
has married the moon,
has made bold his flaxen hair
for the golden rays

He lies naked in the moonlight,
in the clasp of his lover.
His body writhes
to the rhythm of the waves.
Not even I will claim
his first child now.

The moon’s children,
pale ghosts who haunt the
dawn and dusk,
will torment him
twist his mind,
until he cannot find
his way back
into the sun.

Some fires cannot be fed.
Some desires cannot be quenched.

The boy, the moonlight, the window.
My magic cannot save him now.

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Dear Giselle,

I’m sure you’ve read about our recent financial crisis. The government increased taxes, which meant that many people went hungry. We’re all doing our part, of course, feeding the poor and protesting the new taxes, but it doesn’t seem to help much. Jess continues to paint the royal family, but she was unsettled the other day. She was painting the family playing croquet when she saw what she thought was a ghost of a boy in a far window. When she asked the family about it, they assured her that it was her imagination. Someone else saw him, too, because it was in the paper. The royal family decried it as “fake news.” Jess keeps starting awake at night remembering the lost, haunted look in the boy’s eyes.

The situation at home is bad. After another fight with Jess, Snow disappeared. It seems that she has run off with a hunter. Jess was beside herself. After making some careful inquiries, we’ve learned that she is living at the house of the seven dwarves. Jess can’t go, of course, without Snow throwing another tantrum, so I’m putting together a care package to take to her. Maybe I can talk some sense into her.

In Friendship,
Shanika

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Royal Dossier on “Pequeño” Dwarf (FOR YOUR EYES ONLY)

The youngest of seven siblings, all with the last name of “Dwarf,” “Pequeño” was named Alicia at birth. The mother died giving birth. The father had abandoned the family six months earlier. The older siblings raised the younger siblings, all of whom attended school regularly and appeared to be well-adjusted. By the age of six, the Alicia was going by the name of “Pequeño.” He excelled at shop and showed an aptitude for several sports. By the time he graduated, he was over six feet tall, nearly the same height as his brothers. After graduation, he joined his brothers in the family mining business. He has a small garden and makes extra money selling and delivering his organic products to wealthy villagers. It was this latter avocation that brought him onto the castle grounds on the eighth of this month. At the same time, the prisoner, who is being held incommunicado, could be glimpsed at the window in the east wing. Simultaneously, Jessamine White, the royal painter also noticed the prisoner. However, White believed what she was told, that she was mistaken in what she believed she saw. On the other hand, Pequeño went to the press. The Castle is now working to avoid a scandal. The prisoner has been confined to an interior room to avoid future sightings.

Recommendation: Initiate surveillance of Jessamine White and her immediate family. Consider “Pequeño” an active threat and contain it.

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The Town Cryer

Our sources tell us that the “ghost” in the castle that we reported on last week is Elton Cho, the barman whose family recently came into a good deal of money. His father reported Elton missing over a week ago. Elton has been in poor health lately and the family is extremely concerned. The Castle issued a press release stating that “The grounds have been haunted for many years by Casper, the ghost of a prince who fell while scaling the castle walls to ‘rescue’ a princess” (who, our researcher informs us, neither wanted nor needed to be rescued). It goes on to state that “This ghost is friendly and does not form any sort of a threat. Foreign elements are once again stirring up trouble with fake news. Mr. Cho undoubtedly decided to return to his own country.” A mob later gathered around the tavern, shouting “go home, foreigners!” Mr. Cho Senior appeared perplexed by the chants, explaining that his family has lived in the same village for centuries, and indeed, records show that the royal family originally bought the land for the castle from ancestors of the Chos.

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Snow White

He shifts his weight,
plunges his hand
into the earth
breathes deeply,
withdraws potatoes
deposits them at my feet.
I am wealthy beyond measure.

Give me no roses.
Sing me no songs.
Open no doors for me.
I have found the sun
that swings in the sky.

His stalks burst with beans
and he hordes words like riches,
saves them for me,
pulls out each pearl-sentence
and holds it shining white
in the autumn moonlight.

Give me no roses.
Sing me no songs.
Open no doors for me.
I have found the sun
that swings in the sky.

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Note on the door of the Town Cryer: The government has shut down the Town Cryer for writing fake news. Its evil and traitorous writers and editors have gone into hiding. The Castle Cryer will be coming soon, with the royal family’s hand-picked relatives taking control and writing only news that is Absolutely True.

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Dear Giselle,

So much has happened that I hardly know where to begin. I’m sure that you’ve heard rumors of our kingdom’s situation even in your far land, but let me start with the personal part of the story.

I left early in the morning to visit Snow. I was carrying a basket full of baked goods and fruit. The weather was perfect, with a light breeze blowing and the birds singing. As I approached the house, I heard Snow singing as well, in a high clear voice that I never suspected she had. The Dwarfs (I was soon to learn that this was their surname, not their race) were at work in the mine and Snow was alone, working in a beautifully maintained garden. When she saw me, she jumped up immediately, ran to me, and gave me a hug. She kept looking around for her mother and was disappointed when I told her that I was alone. I was amazed by this change in her. Our surly teen appeared to be completely gone and did not reappear the entire time I was there.

Snow was waiting for a group of her friends who were to coming to visit, but she seemed more than happy to spend time with me. She absolutely glowed as she told me about her new life with the Dwarfs and her affection for the youngest, Pequeño. At first I thought she must spend her time cleaning their house and laundering their clothes, but she assured me that the brothers keep a spotless house and do not need to be rescued from a life of filth and disorder. They need neither a mother nor a maid. Instead, Snow spends her days looking after Pequeño’s garden and has started her own business making and selling jams and soaps that she makes from the herbs, fruits, and vegetables in the garden and the forest.

The brothers also raise pigs, and Snow showed me around their handsomely appointed pen. When she first arrived, she made little houses for the pigs: one of straw, one of sticks, and one of bricks. I pointed out that with all of the wolves hanging around, this was a disaster waiting to happen. Snow merely laughed happily and told me that the straw and stick houses had, indeed, fallen, but she pointed out the sturdy little brick house still standing in the corner of the pen. When Snow finished showing me around, we sat on a bench outside and talked. After a long while, Snow reached into the basket and brought out an apple. As soon as she bit into it, she appeared to be chocking. I was beside myself!

At that moment, the Dwarfs returned home from work, and Pequeño ran to Snow and performed the Heimlich maneuver. She began to breathe again and he held her tenderly, glaring wholeheartedly at me. “What did you do to her?” he asked. I assured him that I had done nothing. He seemed to think that something was wrong with the apples, so I took one to prove him wrong and put it to my lips. Before I could bite into it, Mr. Cho Senior came running into the clearing shouting “Don’t eat anything from the basket! The royal family has had it poisoned!” I dropped the apple in alarm. Mr. Cho Senior had come to warn us that the Castle Guards were on their way and that they wanted to kill Pequeño. We had many questions, and we didn’t really believe him. As we were all shouting questions at him, we heard laughter, and a half dozen rosy cheeked girls and boys appeared in the clearing. They were the friends Snow had invited!

With the teens bending over the now semi-conscious Snow and the Dwarfs peppering Mr. Cho Senior with questions, it seemed that the chaos could not be contained. However, a shout from the woods and the sound of horses’ hooves brought us all to silence. “They’re here,” Mr. Cho Senior warned. “Save yourselves!”

Shortly, four horsemen appeared, covered completely in mail, two bearing swords and two with bows and arrows. They seemed taken aback by the large party that met them. We were unsure of what to do until one of the horsemen shouted, “There he is! Get him!” and charged at the group that surrounded Pequeño and Snow. Immediately, the teens, the Dwarfs, Snow and myself swung into action. I cast a slight glamour to confuse the knights and prevent them from using their bows. The teens used their Taekwondo to knock the soldiers from their horses and subdue them. The Dwarfs tied them firmly to trees and questioned them.

Here, dear Giselle, is where we began to learn what you have undoubtedly heard. The royal family was keeping Elton Cho a prisoner in the castle, and to keep it a secret, they were ready to kill Pequeño, who had seen the boy while delivering vegetables. My thoughts immediately went to Jess, but the knights told me that she was not their priority. Mr. Cho Senior clarified that she had caught one of the castle spies in the attic and, after beating a confession from him, had gone into hiding. She was safe.

Mr. Cho Senior wanted to march on the castle immediately and rescue his son, but we persuaded him to return to his tavern and appeal to the mob that had been tormenting him. Exhibiting the fickleness that mobs tend to exhibit, they immediately rallied behind us, and we all marched to the castle. Along the way, Jess and our neighbors with the long hair joined us. I was so overjoyed to see Jess unharmed that the mob almost left us behind, kissing in the town square.

By the time we arrived at the castle with our pitch forks and torches, the royal family had fled. We immediately proceeded to the chamber where we believed Elton to be imprisoned. Although the door was locked, we were surprised to find the room empty except for two notes. The first one read: “I have damaged dear Elton with my tricks, and he is my responsibility. I will find a way to heal his mind. Meanwhile, do not fear, he is safe with me.” It was signed “Rumpelstiltskin.” The second letter was from Elton himself. It read: “Rumpelstiltskin is an idiot. He needs me. Don’t worry about us. He brought me my broom. Look for us on autumn nights when the moon fills the sky. You will see us flying across it.”

That was the end of our grand adventure. Mr. Cho Senior, who seems to know more than he should, simply smiled at our questions about how he knew that the apples were poisoned and about the royal murder plot. He invited us all to his pub. The first pint was on the house.

Always,
Shanika

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The Town Cryer

The editors are pleased to announce that the Town Cryer is back in business and will continue to report as fairly as we can. With the royal family deposed, and their funds distributed to the townsfolk from whom they were taken, the kingdom’s economy is slowly returning to normal. The orchard owners have secured a loan from the new inhabitants of the castle and have begun to rebuild their orchards. They hope to be producing apples again in a few short years.

In other news, The Bremen Town Musicians will be playing at Cho’s Swine and Beer Pub this weekend. They will also play at the dance in the town square. We have heard from the Whites that Mother Hubbard is coming on a visit in a couple of weeks. Too bad she’ll miss the dance.

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Dear Giselle,

I was so excited to receive your letter, and Jess and I are looking forward to your visit. Don’t worry about the situation here. Peace has been restored. A new prince has moved into the castle with his pregnant wife. He was blind as a bat, but our long-haired neighbors gave the princess a potion to drink and ordered her to cry and let her tears fall into her husband’s eyes. This was easy for her to do as the potion was so spicy that it brought tears to her eyes. The husband’s sight has returned completely. The new royal family seems much less interested in intrigue and more interested in just being happy. They have already engaged Jess to continue her work as the royal painter, and she has been looking at images of wood nymphs in preparation for painting the new baby.

Snow and Jess had a delighted reunion, and Snow spent the week with us. She left yesterday to return to the woods and Pequeño. Before she left, she took me aside and apologized for her outburst in my shop. “You are more beautiful than me,” she said. “Someday, with age and experience, I hope to become as beautiful as you.” I imagine there is a wedding in her future, and although we hope she doesn’t take her husband’s name and become Snow Dwarf, Jess and I are confident that they will be happy for a very long time.

In Friendship,
Shanika


Allene Nichols lives in Dallas, Texas, where she works in Richland College’s writing lab and teaches writing at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including: Veils, Halos, and Shackles; Lifting the Sky, Southwestern Haiku and Haiga; and Impossible Archetype. Her poem, “Queer Salt,” was a 2017 winner of OUTSpoken’s creative writing contest.