I’ve been trekking back into the Grimm’s story, The Briar Rose, in preparation for a “Story Talk” I’ll be giving on January 22.
A decade or so ago, I repeatedly told the story to many different groups, including people living with various forms of illness. I invited them into the story to find their own images, and to illuminate the story’s personal and collective meaning through their own characters’ eyes.
I have collected more than two dozen stories, and at some point this amazing material will see the light of day. Meanwhile, I thought I would share a short piece that I won’t have time to share on January 22nd.
It’s Briar Rose herself, telling the story of what she dreamed during her long one hundred year sleep. It gives shape to a certain kind of horror I felt about the predicament of a young girl who is given a load of magical gifts, along with the responsibilty for bringing them all to fruition.
How on earth would she meet those expectations? She would certainly need that sleep!
Briar Rose’s Dream
After falling upon the bed, I fell into a deep sleep …
… and then I dreamed.
I dreamed that I had come into the great Hall. I wore some sort of ceremonial gown. It was made in red velvet with gold brocade, and it bore a long, heavy train. I wore a circlet around my head, and my hair had been curled in perfect ringlets and tumbled down to my knees. I felt rather weighed down by my hair and my train.
The room was gloomy and cold. Shafts of white light slanted in from the small windows above and crisscrossed above me like swords. From the balcony, twelve standards hung painted gold and green, six on the left and six on the right. Beneath each standard stood one of my aunts. I had never met them but I supposed that they were the twelve wise women who had given me gifts at my christening. They were very generous. I have a bounty of talent, beauty and wisdom to thank them for.
I had a strong urge to run into my aunties’ arms and cover them in kisses, but my train was heavy and there was a distinct air of sobriety in the room. Each aunt stood frozen under her standard with her arms crossed, rigid and proud. I walked solemnly to the first aunt on the left. She curtseyed and I bid her to rise. “I should be bowing to you, aunt, for it is clear from your exquisite face that you have given me the gift of beauty. Thank you with all my heart.”
“Take care of that face,” she said without any expression. “Keep it flawless.”
“That I will gladly do,” I said, and went on to the next.
She was a towering figure like a stone-eyed statue from ancient Greece. Her left hand rested on a harp. I was enchanted by her long fingers, they were like mine. “Thank you for my gift of music, auntie,” I whispered.
“Make me proud,” she replied. Her tone was stern, like laces pulled too tight, making it hard to breathe.
The third aunt was small and hunched; she clutched a piece of stitch work. I marveled at the tiny perfect stitches.
“Show me your hands,” she commanded. She ran her scaly fingers over mine. They switched to and fro like lizard tails. “These hands are useless,” she growled.
I drew my hands away. Where was the air in this dusty room? I felt faint, my train pulled on my shoulders and my neck strained.
“Don’t mind her,” said the next aunt. “Many can sew but few can sing. Let me hear your voice.”
“Ahh,” I sang.
“Eeee gads,” she retorted. “I gave you a better voice than that.”
I moved to the other side of the room, tugging on my train. I did not think I made such a very bad sound. I was beginning to feel like a ship carrying too much cargo, listing on a stormy sea. I hoped (half-heartedly) that the aunts on the other side would be kinder to me. But it was worse with them. With each of their gifts—leadership, invention, words, dancing, diplomacy—came a set of rules and responsibilities. They all had a claim on me. I was the ground for their harvest, I would never have a moment free.
I had not even completed the round before aunts I had finished with started coming up from behind, pulling on my hair, inspecting my clothes …
“So this is it, eh?”
“Bit of a disappointment, really …”
“She’s not the child I expected …”
“Rather clumsy …”
“Not very clever and awfully slow …”
“What are we going to do with her?”
“Who knows, who knows?!”
The room went round in circles, aunts swarmed in from all sides, from under standards I could not bear. My train bound me at the knees, making me a captive. I tried to turn the other way but there were aunts crawling all over me, holding me back. At last, I howled, “GET OFF OF ME!” and ripped myself away. I bolted for the door, dragging my train behind me, limping like a lame horse. And who was standing at the entryway but my thirteenth aunt, the uninvited guest, the one who had come to my christening and cursed me to death. She stood there all bent over, her gray hair springing from her head like the bristles of a broom … smiling ear to ear like a toad, but her eyes were kind and her arms were open and I ran into them crying, “Auntie, auntie get me out of here!”
“There, there” she crooned, rocking me back and forth, back and forth, drawing her cloak of night around me. We melted like wax and seeped through the cracks of the stone floor, down into the realm of death where it is surprisingly warm and all the guests are welcome. Down underground, it did not matter what I did with my gifts. I was a cherished seed, like all the rest, and would crack in my own time, when winter, long winter had passed.
I slept. In the arms of my aunt I slept. Rocking in the cradle of death, for a hundred years I slept. And then, suddenly, the warm, snug casing around me burst, and light fell upon me, like a window had been opened suddenly. No! I cried. No light! Please, no light. I didn’t want to wake. I wanted to stay there where it was warm and safe, where I was hidden. But the light fell upon me like an eye, exposing every part of me. I struggled against it, I did not want to be seen! I was covered in spiders’ webs and there were critters crawling all over me. My hair had become a nest for mice and birds and my breath had filled the room with a sulfurous gas that would suffocate a snake …Go away, please!
And yet, he was there, leaning over me, gently pulling the cobwebs away, wiping the dust off my face…
“You are beautiful, Briar Rose,” I heard him say …
Then I began to wake!
Paintings by Edward Burne-Jones and Frederic Lord Leighton.