Once upon a time, there was a princess who met a woman while playing in the woods. Out by herself, the princess was climbing trees and observing the fauna. As she was stepping on a branch to ascend for a better view, it broke under her weight and she fell. After she got up from the ground and brushed the dirt off her skirts, she looked up and the woman was standing in front of her.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the woman said.
“You’re probably right,” the princess replied. “Doesn’t matter. These trees suck anyway. They’re all broken.”
The woman nodded. “They’re sick,” she said. “They have heart rot. A fungus makes them weak deep within. That’s why the branch broke.”
“Heart rot?” the princess laughed. “Trees don't have hearts. But whatever. I should have my father destroy this forest and plant new trees.”
“Do you think they’re lesser because they are weak? Helping the vulnerable would be a more noble approach,” said the woman.
“How dare you,” said the princess. “I’m noble as fuck!”
A malicious grin spread across the woman’s face, and suddenly the princess wanted very badly to leave.
“You’re bleeding,” said the woman. Looking down, the princess saw blood staining her blouse from a gash on her thumb. The woman plucked something from a tree and rubbed it on the cut. The princess winced as it burned her skin, and when she looked up the woman was gone.
Back at the castle, she worried she would have to explain her injury, but when she looked again the cut was gone and there were no signs of blood. All that was left was a scar. She shrugged it off and didn’t think of it again until years later when she met a prince.
One day after they’d been dating for a bit she told him about the woman in the woods. “And I think she cursed me,” she said and held up her thumb for him to inspect.
“Impossible,” said the prince. “Stuff like that is always written in some big leather-bound book.”
“Well there isn’t any book,” said the princess.
“So there’s no curse,” the prince told her.
She told him that there wasn’t a book because she never told anybody about it. In fact, he was the first one. “She didn’t say she was cursing me. But it didn’t seem like she wasn’t. So if she did things could get difficult.”
“I don’t care. I want to be in your court,” he said dismissing her warning. And so the princess and prince were married, some years later becoming queen and king.
Things were simple until the morning the queen woke to discover a growth on her foot. A single mushroom was sprouting from between her toes. She plucked it and tossed it out the window, but the next morning in its place were several more.
On the day she woke with the fungus crawling up her entire leg she screamed and her ladies came rushing into the room. They removed all of the fungi, and what remained was not so much a leg but more like the branch of a tree.
The queen went to see the alchemist, who was perplexed. In all his years he’d never seen anything like it. He rubbed multiple tonics on the leg and gave her a tea to drink three times per day. Despite these efforts, her limb remained covered in bark and began to grow weaker by the day. After dinner one evening, as she tried to get up from the table, a snap echoed through the great hall and she fell to the ground.
“We can’t save it,” the alchemist told the queen. “It’s broken and, well, it’s a tree branch. All we can do is cut it off.”
The alchemist called the executioner who shed a tear when he took an ax to the queen’s leg. He had known her since she was just a small girl when he was beheading people for her father. After the axeman was done, the queen was left with a stump.
The following day the king ordered all the broken trees in the woods to be cut down. “Better yet, burn it all!” he exclaimed.
“No,” the queen said softly in protest.
“If that woman is still somewhere out there...”
“I will not have it!” the queen exclaimed, and so the trees remained.
The fungus spread with impressive speed, and soon covered her other leg and her hands as well. As she grew weaker, it became quite challenging for the queen to walk even with the use of a crutch. After her other leg was cut off, the king pleaded with the alchemist: “There has to be something we can do!” But they’d tried all the tonics, and teas, and potions, and there wasn’t anything that could stop it.
Left with two stumps, the queen found difficulty in every task. The king insisted he carry her everywhere because she was his queen and he loved her. He carried her up the stairs, put her in bed at night, even lifted her on and off of her chamber pot. Eventually his actions came more and more from a sense of duty than affection.
“Things are really getting hard,” the king said over dinner as he hurriedly cut up the queen’s food. Silent, the queen nodded as she attempted to hold a fork with the sucker branches that had replaced her fingers. She’d been aware of the strain her predicament was causing him.
That night after the king lifted the queen into bed, she wept. Once he was asleep, she rolled herself out of bed and onto the floor. The queen pulled herself with her branches out of the castle and into the woods. When she no longer had an ounce of strength left, she propped herself up against the trunk of a tree and listened to the sound of hearts breaking.
Suzanne (she/her) lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. Most days she’s busy tending to the desert homestead she shares with her husband and their animals. Twitter: @iamsuzannehicks