The fairy tale I’ve retold is a little-known, tiny tale from the Brothers Grimm collection . . .
. . . simply titled ‘The Old Woman in the Woods’. This artistic revision gives impressions of Imbolc through the emergence of the characters’ identities alongside the growth of springtime, coinciding with the death of the evil crone (or winter itself) and the day the sun in this fantasy world sheds its crystal veils by reaching equinoctial strength.
The Willow and the Dove
The foundling Lailee was named after the music of spring larks. “Lay-lay-lay” and “lee-lee-lee-lee” trilled from plum blossoms. Castle workers claimed that she slid from the feathers of her namesakes. Lightness, swiftness and agility proclaimed the fable as possibility. Her voice held a deep musicality. Her soul held a respect for authority. Change was not resisted, only unfairness. Once, speaking out against it, Lailee received a thorough lashing by the cook. At five years of age, she ran into the the one place she was sure to find peace: Minwood.
Its mysterious old foliage cast translucent shadows and indistinct whispers. She ignored painful injuries and delved into new discoveries. Among the meadows of wild flags and impish flowers, her eye caught upon the paleness of a bird. She called it Ash Dove and held its presence a secret.
Dove led her to a tree unlike any other. Its branches fanned as crimson streamers, its catkins welkin blue. Lailee believed it looked like a fiery willow. Dove gave a coo, and the willow’s streamers slipped around Lailee. She held still, forgetting to be afraid. The tree was filled with warmth, and Lailee with a warmth that glowed. The tree let go. Lailee lost the cook’s welts and bruises.
“A healing tree?”
Limbs, lined up like small fingers, spread across the top of Lailee’s black locks. A Willow that heals, that is alive, that is magic. Lailee pressed her forehead to the funny knot upon the bole.
“I will keep you a secret. I keep all magic a secret.”
She loved Dove and Willow. They comforted her, and, in little ways, Lailee knew she comforted them with tales and gossip from the castle. For a long, long while, Dove and Willow were Lailee’s only friends.
Lailee started caring for the knights’ equine chattels, then of the knights’ equines, then of one particular knight, Sir Valst, cousin of their sad queen. Lailee was thrown into the monarch’s sight. In that way, and that way only, Lailee became aware of the Minwood’s terrible history. A daughter had vanished there, Princess Alair.
“Vanished on the Fire Day,” related the Queen. “Do you know what the Fire Day is, Lailee?”
The day when the sun lost its halo of ice crystals, a symbol that winter had fled, that the sun was full of fire again. “I lost Alair on that day, Fire Day, an eclipse year, that of her fifth birthday. You were born the same year as Alair. That is what Valst has said. Children of the eclipse year always know one another, and have a magic of their own. Do you know any magic, Lailee?”
She was afraid the Queen could see inside her an insatiable hunt for magic. Lailee fought it. The more she shimmied under the handling of the knights, the more she defied intuition. But, one day, suddenly, Sir Valst fell from his horse. Lailee fled from sharp horrors, and returned to the solace of Minwood.
She ran without stopping, no breath worth breathing but the one that might break Sir Valst from the deathly web. Dove with her deft wing couldn’t maintain the speed of Lailee’s swift feet. Willow held the dim, faraway light of a haloed sun, causing it to be unfinished, blurred somehow. Like most in Lailee’s world, Willow seemed lifeless. Lailee pounded fists upon the knot, and cried frustrated tears.
“Why aren’t you living, and real, as a person, to talk to me?”
The susurrus of limp limbs caused Lailee’s breath to catch. She was pushed from the rear till her face crashed against the fibrous trunk. The limbs petted her hair, wiped from her cheek a faint tear. Lailee caught the circumference of the bole within her arms and squeezed. It wasn’t a tree, but a spirit with greater humanity than those who teased her agony.
“You’re as kind to me as Sir Valst. Can you save Sir Valst for me? For the Queen? The Queen will be sadder still if her cousin leaves her. She has already lost her daughter. Here. In these woods. Have you seen her? Her name’s Alair. We were born the same year.”
Dove’s low coo rattled portentously. In the distance, snotty snorting, heavy footsteps crunched on thick snow. Raula, the Crone. She was an intoxicated sloth, but she protected her claim of Minwood with a pack of specious wolves. Lailee knelt in the snow, hidden behind Willow. Raula limped on, drunkenly humming. Her wolves were absent that day.
Free of distrusted eyes, Lailee caressed Willow, flung a kiss at Dove, and rushed hopefully home. She stayed at Valst’s bedside. The Queen watched her, bemused, silent. As a child, Lailee had been less competent at hiding her emotions, the way that magic and intuition ruled her; nearing the age of twenty, she was childish still but often unexcitable.
The Queen stayed with Lailee, who stayed with Valst. They talked over their slumbering hero, about the rangers’ dogs, the knights’ cats, the mages’ funny hats, the cook’s worst meals, the everyday things that often went unsaid. Lailee returned to Dove and Willow, and crowed of how she’d made the Queen laugh. “She has such a pretty laugh, and it’s such a shame she isn’t laughing more. I will come back to you when Sir Valst wakes.”
She had long to wait. Sure that Sir Valst would survive, Lailee found herself curled at the roots of the Willow. On and on she talked, almost in a drone, while Willow helped her stay warm.
At the castle, Lailee’s responsibilities increased. She’d been given a horse of her own, and studies of horsemanship, too. Valst could not ride yet, but he was no man for being idle. “I will teach you,’ is what he said to me,” Lailee explained to her animate friends, Dove on her shoulder, Willow setting Lailee’s black hair into twin braids. It was autumn then, and Willow’s shiny teal leaves were mottled in brown. The mellow evening slipped into a darkness overlaid by the flare of sleepless stars, and, clewed by the roots of Willow, Lailee dreamed. She woke in the faint gray light of morning, unable to discredit her dream.
Her hand fell upon Willow’s knot, that now claimed the shape of a keyhole, with a wide top and a narrow bottom. Willow’s limbs looped about Lailee, and Lailee felt old sorrows decay. In her dream, she’d run through Minwood with a crimson-haired friend, whose catkins of intense cerulean were transformed into irises Lailee could not stop seeking. She’d chased laughter and happiness in the phantoms of her sleep, and woke now with an indescribable longing, an unflagging belief.
Before she could speak, Dove’s ominous coo alerted Lailee to the nearness of the crone. Lailee looked at the knot, the keyhole, but saw only the shape trapped within. “I know who you are. You told me in my sleep.”
Her braids were held and held until she’d run too far, and Willow’s limbs were not long enough to follow Lailee. Dove could fly anywhere, and landed upon windowsills at the castle. Strange to see Lailee in the courtyard, teaching boys and learning from knighted men. Strange to see Lailee in the wake of the Queen, talking to her of recently discovered things, and nearing, but never quite reaching, the point of unleashing the knowledge of magic she’d unwittingly gleaned. Dove flew back to Willow, and being two parts of one whole, had nothing new to tell that the spirit in the tree didn’t already know.
Lailee returned to sleep at Willow’s roots several times more. She watched the halos mount upon the moons, the diaphanous rings around the nearest stars, and counted the weeks gone by as they shifted positions over skeletal treetops. On a morning of deep freeze, Lailee woke to a forest doused in fog, and the weak sun struggling to shift through it, and when it did all was white, every branch, twig, faded brown leaf, pinecone and fir tree. Lailee found Willow crimson as ever. The heartbeat within the ensorcelled princess pulsed warmth to the ends of her limbs. Lailee rolled over in her little fox’s den, smiling, pleased, but let the smile succumb to the struggle within. “You are too real yet to be held here. Come into my dreams, Alair, and tell me how to free you.”
Fierce winds and days of snow held Lailee as a slave to chores, and so exhausted at night that she slept wherever she lay. She looked for Dove to come, but even Dove was not strong enough to face the northern gales that spun snow into high, high drifts.
When the sun dimpled the clouds and roads were passable again, Lailee wept exhaustedly upon Willow. “Your mother gets worse every day,” Lailee cried. “Valst, your cousin, will never be strong again, and she gets weaker herself. She needs you, and I need you, too, for her sake, for my own. Please tell me, Alair, where is the key to free you?”
Her next dream contained sad themes, Alair’s despair morphed into a gray forest, into gray pictures of the Queen, and, as daybreak approached, into long, lingering kisses, tasting first of woe, then of adversity, and yet faintly of triumph. Sensations of love melted into fear. Alair spoke to her. “I am the Willow and the Dove. One is me, one is the spirit of me. I was a child once, and I ran away. The Crone captured me. The spell will be permanent tomorrow, the Fire Day, my twenty-third birthday. You cannot save me, Lailee. It’s too late.”
Raula slugged about, collecting sacks of dormant larvae. The wolves were with her that day. Lailee had to climb high into Willow to escape being seen. She had never examined the crone, and found her to be prettier than most crones in Valst’s orated tales, yet had black eyes deeper than abysses, like those of her ghostly wolves. Around her neck, a string kept a pouch, a set of keys, and one very large key with a wide top and a narrow bottom. Lailee’s insides leapt. But to face Raula alone, even with all her training, Lailee cowered. Defeat would take more than what she had. Raula’s spies kept Lailee there all night. The sun lifted on the Fire Day.
Breathless, Lailee interrupted the Queen at her desk. “I have a story to tell you, and I do not know how you will like it, or what you will think of the ending I’ve planned, but I require your imagination and your power to bring it about.”
Hearing what she had most hoped for, the Queen found Valst. Along with Lailee, they entered Minwood. Lailee showed them Alair’s body, disguised as a willow, and showed them Alair’s spirit, disguised as a Dove. The Queen did not cry at her daughter’s feet. She turned to Lailee, sadness gone, strength achieved.
“Show me the way to Raula.”
“She does not have to,” they heard. Raula and her wolves sucked up shadows, whitening their portion of the forest, darkening the places where evil stood. “I am here, your Majesty. I suppose you’ve come for this.” She raised the key, let it sway, then tossed it among the sworded leaves of wild irises. “There it lay. One of us will die for it.”
Valst unsheathed his weapon. Raula was unimpressed.
“Stay out of this, you invalid knight. This is between mothers.” Her tiny eyes winced then widened. “We are creators, Queen, you and I. You created an undisciplined brat, and I created two beautiful things that do nature’s bidding.”
The wolves crouched, sneering. Were they real, or phantoms? Lailee had lived so often in Minwood, in wakefulness, in dreams, that she had no fear of spectral beings. She stepped forward, and with her step vagrant shadows returned and two of the wolves vanished.
“Stay back!” Raula’s only weapon was one knurled old hand. She heard wind sighing as, one by one, her lupine fortress disbanded.
Lailee claimed another step. “You can hide Princess Alair as a tree and a bird, but you did nothing to encumber her dreams. You did not count on a young woman falling in love.”
An enraged Raula lunged forward, talons extending from crooked fingertips. Her war cry pierced. Lailee defended herself, but stumbled backwards into irises. Another cry shattered the silence, that of the Queen. She stole Valst’s sword and plunged it into Raula’s belly. Black blood doused a wolf’s carcass. Lailee stared, uncertain eyes seeing the crone as a dead wolf. Her hand clasped something solid, cold nearby. The spell remained unbroken.
“Hurry!” urged the Queen. “It’s almost noon! The sun’s full strength will affix the spell!”
Even as the Queen spoke, Lailee turned the strange key in the strange knot of the willow. A blast of energy, as arrows of light, shot Lailee from tree to tree. Her head was struck, dragging her into sleep.
Nightmarish visions plagued her dreams: searching for Alair in starless space, finding herself too often in nothing, at the nameless crossroads of nowhere. Very slowly, over a great deal of time, her universe reformed and she was once more in Minwood. But the willow tree with the warm crimson limbs, and the soft-voiced Ash Dove, had disappeared. Lailee no longer wanted to be where her love was not. She willed herself to the castle, to her room, to her bed, and there she woke, disturbed, discontent.
A redheaded young woman, beautiful though she lacked grace, energetic though she was then still, paced in the sun-streaked bedroom. A plain brown dress disguised her, but in a moment, as she looked up, Lailee knew her. Alair claimed Lailee’s hand.
“You were gone so very long, dearest.”
“You’re free,” Lailee said, guiding a finger along a red tress.
“Well, yes. I never hear Valst’s tales end with ‘And they lived unhappily ever after.’ I’ll fetch Mother and Valst as soon as you’ve kissed me hello.” Alair and Lailee remembered how to kiss only from their dreams, and in those dreams kisses were flawless, yet in reality Lailee’s lip had a cut and Alair managed to find it with her teeth. “Oh, never mind. We’ll have to practice. Let me get Mother, and Valst, and the nice little gnome who’s to marry us. Then, Lailee, our happily ever after! Valst will have a love story to tell that will outlast generations.”
Alair did not move exactly like a tree in a windstorm, but she was fast, light, like the Dove she’d been. She belonged to herself, and she belonged to Lailee, too. Lailee held up her hand, finding the bare sun’s rays warm upon a red copper ring dotted with blue stones, a reminder of the fiery willow.
is a baker, empath and weather prognosticator from Ohio, U.S.A., who has also enjoyed writing for over twenty years. She studies and practices spirituality as constantly as she’s at work on a new piece of fiction. ‘The Willow and the Dove’ reflects on her beliefs of an inner divinity of the self connecting to outer expressions of the Earth Spirit’s intangibles.