The Rats Led the Way

The princess put herself in the tower. She put herself in a deep slumber in the woods, and she fled the ball at the strike of twelve for reasons all her own. She thought the wolf looked very dashing in her grandmother’s gown and she told her so, grabbed the woodsman’s axe, and felled a tree as he howled. 

She made princes weep and kings rage, and the village girls all stared. She tossed them a wave and hid her fear, marched straight down to the cellars full of straw and fed it all to her mare. She was summoned to court and informed that yet another prince had completed the impossible tasks of her father. She laughed and laughed and her skin crawled with dread. 

Her seven best friends who never asked her for love gave her their best advice. The dwarves stood guard as she made her escape, and the rats led the way. On the road she met travelers, bandits, and old women who carried the ways of the world. She saw a life she might have had, and when the search parties found her, she felt all her glass bones break. 

Her mother gave her bushels of roses and taught her which ones would sting. Now came her ever after. She wore white at her wedding, a great billowing dress that easily hid the knife above her knee. She cowered in the marriage bed until she didn’t, until the sheets turned scarlet with something that wasn’t hers, that never would be, that she vowed never to see again. 

When she fled to the woods with rats in her pockets, she found the witch at last. The witch had gleaming green skin and a lump on her nose. She walked with a limp and always spoke in a whisper. Her arms were strong from hauling bundles of firewood, and when the princess arrived, she carefully placed the rats in a space of honor on a small cushion by the stove. 

The princess said she would stay for just one night, and she made herself at home in the cottage, where sugar dripped from the walls and gingerbread graced the table each morning. Slinking black cats rubbed their faces against hers and leapt through the window to the garden full of powerful herbs. 

They sat down for dinner with warm bread and a bubbling stew, and the princess asked if she might stay. The witch gave a cackle and she picked up her broom, and she kissed her under the stars.

Catherine Buck lives in Jersey City with her partner, pets, and plants. She holds an MFA from Rutgers University Camden and was a member of the Tin House YA cohort in winter 2022. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rougarou Journal, FlashFlood, Cotton Xenomorph, and Bending Genres. In her free time, she attempts to bake bread and explore new places. You can find her on Twitter at @buckwriting.