The Official Website of Author Ashley Cowger
Rapunzel and the Witch
When she was little and the Witch would comb her hair, Rapunzel used to cry. The long ringlets tangled so, and no matter how gentle the comb’s caress, no matter how carefully the Witch loosened the snarls with her fingers, Rapunzel would wail and scream and shout, “I hate you,” and, “You hate me,” and, “Why can’t you just let me be?” But the Witch couldn’t. If only the child could understand. If only the child knew what it had taken, what the Witch had given up, just so Rapunzel could know a home and a mother. The thing about this child, the Witch used to think as the tines caught and tugged at the thick curls, is I love her so much, it will kill me.
And it did.
You all know the story, Rapunzel’s version of it, anyway. The prince’s. How he came to rescue her, how they fell in love, how he took her away and left the Witch to face her remorse without hope of redemption. She died in the tower, alone, the Witch. But what Rapunzel and the prince never knew was that the Witch’s sole objective, her only reason for keeping Rapunzel locked away all those years, was to protect the child from the same things that had driven the child’s father to wildness, had driven the Witch to seek solitude in the wasteland where she raised Rapunzel.
It’s true, of course, what the prince says: that the Witch stole Rapunzel from her real mother. But then, as with all truths, it is a complicated truth. The Witch, you may or may not know, was apprenticed at the apothecary where Rapunzel’s mother used to come for the tinctures and herbs that helped ease the discomfort of pregnancy. But when the expectant mother grew too tired and large, Rapunzel’s father began to pick them up. At first, the Witch found him oddly enchanting, with his dark gaze and his frequently overgrown stubble. The Witch had grown her black bangs long, so they would hang in front of her eyes in the hopes that the clients at the shoppe wouldn’t notice her avoidance of direct eye contact. Rapunzel’s father noticed, though, and he asked her about it every time. “Pretty girls should feel confident,” he’d tell her, or, “Come on, then. Let me see those lovely eyes.” The Witch blushed easily in those days, and he told her that her blush was pretty, too. When she realized his flirtation was more than abstract, that something concrete lay on the other end of his pursuit, she began to feel anxious when she would hear the shoppe bell ring, when she’d look up to see his dark eyes penetrating hers. She began to reply to his queries with curt, indifferent responses, and when he’d compliment her appearance or her voice or her mind, she’d shrug and say, “Did you need anything else?”
Still, he persisted.
He persisted in words, and in other ways, too. He’d let his fingers linger against hers a little too long as he exchanged payment for powder, and once, when she’d needed to climb a stepladder to reach a bottle on a high shelf, he’d held the ladder for her, and he’d pressed his erection against her legs. When she’d looked down, he’d smiled up at her and said nothing. It wasn’t long after that when he would take her in the alley behind the shoppe’s back door. He’d tell her to keep quiet, that crying out would only make it worse, and nobody would come to her aid anyway because she was, after all, a witch, and he was well-liked and wealthy and white.
So yes, Rapunzel had a mother and she had a father, and the Witch had taken the child from them. This is one truth. But there is another truth that Rapunzel never knew.
When the Witch had heard from her employer that Rapunzel’s father’s wife had given birth, the Witch had known, in an instant, what she must do. It wasn’t that she’d particularly disliked Rapunzel’s mother. The woman had been kind when she used to come in to purchase the tonics for herself. But the Witch knew, in that way that Witches do, that Rapunzel’s father was unfit, and that her mother, good-intentioned though she may be, would not be strong enough to do what must be done. So the Witch took it upon herself to do it. She stole the child from the infirmary, which was easier, in those days, as you might imagine.
She stole the child; that’s how Rapunzel and the prince tell it. She rescued the child, that’s how it might be seen, and she raised the little girl like her own, fed her and clothed her and told her stories at night, brushed out her tangles as gently as she knew how. It would have been easy, the Witch knew, to chop the hair off, but every time the Witch resolved to do it, she couldn’t bring herself to squeeze the sheers’ handles. It was as though some strange magic stayed her hand. So instead, she would brush, and Rapunzel would accuse her of abuse. “You’re hurting me,” the child would shriek. “Why do you want to hurt me?”
It was a question that would haunt the Witch in the months after Rapunzel’s departure, a question the Witch could not answer. It wasn’t the right question, that was part of it, and the only answer that would have been entirely true would not have soothed the girl or the Witch in its telling.