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Curses and Choices: The Moral Center of Every Fairytale

April 23, 2021

In any fairtytale worth its salt, wishes are rarely granted without strictures or consequences. Curses are never administered without a clever escape hatch baked into them. An escape that almost always requires a moral test. One that demonstrates how choices shape a person’s character and outcome.

Cinderella is showered with gifts and opportunities by her Fairy Godmother, for instance. They’re all rewards for a life lived with honor and dignity under some rather dire circumstances. But even those gifts have a shelflife. Cinderalla is only allowed to enjoy them until midnight. And what she does with them in the short time she has them at her disposal may change the course of her life forever, provided she plays her cards right.

Cinderella, Story, Girl, Dress, Wedding, Castle
Image by Ksenia Sergeeva from Pixabay

In Beauty and the Beast, truly one of the most perfect fairytales ever conceived, both Beauty and Beast must grapple with elements of their own characters. The Beast’s curse has entangled them in its web, forcing a sequence of choices that have the potential to transform their lives. Beauty must learn to see beyond the Beast’s ugly, animal features and love him inspite of them. The Beast, in turn, must grow his own virtues, shed his vanity, and learn how to love well and selflessly before he can have any hope of breaking his curse, having his love reciprocated, and becoming the handsome prince he once was.

Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay

This is why, in part 5 of our fairytale-in-progress, “Romakaji,” we’re playing with the importance of moral choices. How a fairytale’s protagonists are shaped by their responses to curses, magical forces, and plain old bum luck. Through their actions and inactions, they teach us, the reader, how the choices we make today, will build the lives we will live tomorrow.

“Romakaji” Part 5

By Yours Truly

“You’ll have to descend into hell to speak with Count Furfur,” the witch Sybil said. “Otherwise, I imagine he’ll simply wait for you. Whether he has to wait one year or a thousand matters little to him, as he, himself, is truly immortal and will continue to live on even after this universe is gone and a new one has come in its place.”

Romakaji did not like the sound of that. She fingered the necklace at her throat – the one with the pearl and Count Furfur’s seal – and wanted to curse the Earl of Hell who had tricked her into putting it on, luring her into his clutches. Only if Count Furfur hadn’t done that, she’d have never been able to leave the pond, or gotten to know Lionel and fallen in love with him. As evil as Count Furfur undoubtedly was, he did have the curious ability to bring a man and a woman together in love. That had to mean something.

“How can I descend into hell?”

Sybil took a deep breath, and placed her hand over Romakaji’s.

“I can help you, but it’s very dangerous. It doesn’t take a very powerful witch to send an enchanted girl into the underworld, but it does take one to bring her back.”

“Are you that powerful?”

Sybil bit down on her lip. She came closer and looked deeply into Romakaji’s eyes. They had been a murky green when she’d first met the girl in her doorway, but were brighter now. More like a jade stone.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m careful with my magic. I practice a lot, but I don’t cast actual spells much, as they often have unintended consequences. I’ll do some investigating, though. Come back in three days time and we’ll talk then.”

In the three days, four hours, and twenty three minutes until Romakaji went to see Sybil again, she and Lionel fell even deeper in love. They talked of traveling the world together when he finished his research, of marrying, of having a child. Romakaji had no idea if she could have children, and if she did, if they would be enchanted, too. If she would be left to watch them grow old and die as she would Lionel. Her thoughts of the future – romantic and agonizing, hopeful and dreadful – were consuming her. She loved Lionel, and as much as she enjoyed simply being out of the pond, it wasn’t enough.

By the time she made her excuses to her dearest one and went to see Sybil again, she was desperate to meet Count Furfur, and ready to find out what he had in store for her. If she could not convince him to give Lionel as long a life as her’s, perhaps he would agree to let her live her life as a mortal? Surely, that wasn’t a lot to ask. Especially after she’d given so much of her life to Cressida’s curse already.

“I think I know of a way I can get you in and out of hell safely,” Sybil said, ignoring the tea this time and pouring only straight whiskey into their two small silver cups. “I will cast a twin spell making you look just like me. It’s in the glamor of my magic that you’ll go to visit Count Furfur under the guise of learning precisely which spell Cressida cast over you. You’ll tell him you’re interested in casting a similar spell over a woman who is a rival for the affections of a new lover.”

“Won’t he be able to see through your magic?”

Sybil took a deep swallow of her whiskey. “I don’t think so. At least not while he’s in the underworld. In some ways, a witch’s spell can be even more powerful in hell than in the common realm, where the Count would be able to see right through one of my enchantments, just as he saw through Cressida’s and was able to manipulate you. It is because I’m a nature witch, I believe, and do not draw my power from the dark kingdom. At least that’s what my grimoire tells me.”

Romakaji stared into the bottom of the silver cup Sybil had given her. In one gulp she finished her whiskey.

“Are you ready?” The witch asked her.

Romakaji stood up and nodded. She followed Sybil up the stairs, feeling her heart pounding against her breast, as if it was begging to be let out.

Sybil did not burn herbals or scatter animal bones for her spell this time. Instead, she took Romakaji to a large, copper bathtub that stood alone in the center of her attic. It was filled with clear, cool water and nothing else. She had Romakaji undress entirely, except for her necklace, and asked her to enter the tub, which she did, keeping only her head above water. Sybil then cloaked herself in a long cape of purple velvet, pulling its hood over her hair, so that only her pale face was visible. She did not chant or sing in the old language this time. She merely lit a short, beeswax candle and placed her hand on top of Romakaji’s head.

“Be back before this candle burns down. It’s not much time, but should be as much as you need.”

“How will I know the time?”

“You’ll know,” Sybil said. Then she pushed Romakaji’s head beneath the water.

Romakaji’s head broke the black onyx water of a small pool at the base of a volcanic mountain. She had no doubt she was in the underworld. She emerged, dry as a bone, from the still, dark water dressed in Sybil’s purple cloak. It camouflaged her well, covering her body, her hair, and the necklace the Count had given her. She looked onto the surface of the onyx pool and saw Sybil’s face reflecting back at her. The young witch’s spell appeared to have worked.

At the base of the volcanic mountain was a large set of doors and Romakaji knew without a doubt it was the entrance to Count Furfur’s underworld palace. She went to those doors and found them open and leading down a narrow corridor with a curious light. It wasn’t until Romakaji stepped inside that she realized the corridor was lit by the captured souls of countless unwise individuals. It was a terrible walk to Count Furfur’s chamber, as the souls cried out for help, but were unable to be heard. Their light, bright and ghostly as the whites of an infant’s eyes, made the corridor seem lonely and longer than it was. The thought of one day being stuck here with them made Romakaji shiver and gasp.

When at last she entered the Count’s chamber, he looked up straight away as if he had forseen her arrival. He was seated on an enormous throne made entirely of rubies. Ones that appeared soft and moist like blood clots. It was as terrible a throne as she had expected, but the Count himself was like nothing like she expected. His face was boyish, with skin as taut and dark as a plum. His lips slim and pink like a rosebud. It was only his eyes, a deeper purple than even Sybil’s robe, that betrayed what he was.

“A rare and distinctive pleasure to be visited by a nature witch,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

Romakaji told him the story she and Sybil had rehearsed.

“You wish to know the specific curse the witch Cressida used on the water girl, and it’s nature?”

Romakaji nodded, and Count Furfur smiled with a slight shrug.

“The spell was a simple one, and hardly worth a trip to the underworld, I’m afraid. A protective spell made of spider’s silk and fresh thorny weeds. The girl could have been put in a cave, or a tree or the closet of a house and it would have had the same effect. It was, as you know, Cressida’s death that made the enchantment more or less permanent. That and a promise made to me by the water girl’s suitor.”

“What sort of promise?” Romakaji asked. The mention of her suitor made her skin prick with needles. She hoped she didn’t seem too eager in her response.

“The short-sighted promise of a fool, of course. He wanted revenge on a woman who had injured his pride and he got it. He wanted earthly riches, as well, and he got those, too. I got his soul for the rest of eternity – a much better end of the deal, I might say.”

“And what of the girl?” Romakaji asked him.

The girl,” he said wistfully. “Her fate is more complicated. Indeed the water girl and her beloved will continue to love like no other. Their love will grow just as her beauty and her memory will grow. And when he dies, the girl’s memories of him will only intensify, becoming more vivid with each passing second. She will never be able to love another, I’m afraid. And when she dies, when one day the world ends, or her necklace is lost somehow, she will belong to me and come to live in my palace at my side.”

Romakaji could feel her breath start to quiver in her throat. Not only at the dread of living forever in hell, next to the horrible corridor of souls, at the foot of a throne of blood rubies, at the side of a boyish earl with eyes that speak not of infinite possibilities, but the endless journey of the godforsaken. No, it was because the quiver travelled down to her lungs, making them feel tight, alerting her to how low the beeswax candle in Sybil’s attic was burning. She did not wish to be stuck here, but before she went back, she had to know.

“Why is it you want her?” She whispered. “I mean, she is just some water girl.”

Count Furfur drummed his short, slender fingers on his thigh. He cocked his head and smiled, showing his teeth this time. They were small and misshapen like sweetwater pearls.

“Because I like nothing more than the presence of a woman in love.”

The Count said this honestly, with none of his usual sinister undertone. It was his ability to create love that was a singluar light in his dark existence, and having an enchanted soul pining for a lost lover at his side would be like holding time in a bottle.

“And there’s one other thing the girl’s suitor gave in exchange for his soul,” he informed her. “It was the one clever thing he did.”

Romakaji blinked and shook her head.

“The suitor came to hell in exchange for her choice.”

“What sort of choice?”

“Your choice,” he said. “For do you not understand that I know who you are? You are not Sybil Ravencroft, a rather unpracticed nature witch, you’re Romakaji of the village, and then of the pond.”

Sybil’s robes, along with her twin spell fell away, and Romakaji found herself standing before Count Furfur unglamored.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t keep you here. Not yet, anyway. You’re free to leave any time that you wish.”

But Romakaji wasn’t so sure. The tightness in her chest was growing worse, and her breathing more erratic.

“May I say you are even lovelier here before me than when I visited you in your pond,” he told her. “Of course, you grow more beautiful by the day, but that’s not why. No, it’s the glow of love.”

The Count’s yearning for love was as palpable as the first glimpse of spring after a long, long winter.

“I am curious, if once I give you your options, it will change the way you look?” The Count smiled again, licking his rosebud lips. “See, if you remove the charm around your neck of your own volition, you will have to leave your lover behind, but you will be allowed entry into heaven as if you had never been enchanted.”

“But I killed a boy with my loneliness,” Romakaji reminded him.

The Count shrugged, raising up his tiny palms. “It is only the things you do of your own volition that concern us here.”

“And if I do not remove the charm?”

The Count crossed his legs and leaned in to the girl.

“If you are greedy, if you wait until fate delivers you to us, or you remove the charm after the death of the one you love, after you’ve had at least one human life to live with him, you will become my bride, and my keeper of lost souls.”

Romakaji’s mouth went dry and her hands began to quake. She tried to take in a breath, but could hardly capture any air. The Count began to cackle.

“It would appear your witch friend’s candle is burning out. And that I may have told you a bit of a fib about not wanting to keep you here today.”

Without another word, Romakaji turned from Count Furfur and ran. She ran down the corridor lit by souls, trying to shield her eyes from their awful light. But she could not. Towards the end of the vile and pitiless corridor, she saw the most furious and monstrous soul of them all – her old suitor’s. It twisted, white and hollow-eyed before her, lamenting its poor choices – ones fueled by pride and greed. Hating and begging her with equal savagery. She heard his silent cries all the way until her head broke the surface of the water in Sybil’s copper tub. And she heard them in her nightmares as she slept next to Lionel that night. She also heard a voice, shrill and velvety all at once.

“I’m having a throne fashioned for you,” Count Furfur whispered. “A welcome gift of sapphires and emeralds that come not from the earth, but from the water. So you’ll feel right at home.”

Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

Come back to the Cold next week for what I’m pretty confident will be the final chapter of “Romakaji.” It’s going to be a doozy – I promise!

And please join me this week on the Cold podcast as we discuss the importance of writing what we don’t know. How delving into the unfamiliar, unexplored parts of our imaginations enriches our storytelling and our lives. And if you like what you’re hearing, please follow the show and leave a starred review on the platform of your choice (Cold is also available on Apple, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Radio Public).

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