My grandmother told me this fairytale many years ago. She wanted me to know from a very young age that there is no stronger love in this world than that of a mother for her child. I believe the story is based on Ukrainian folklore, and that my grandmother had heard it in turn from her parents or grandparents. It has a strong message and enough gore to impress a child and make Hans Christian Andersen proud. I never forgot what my grandmother told me, and recently I decided to put it on paper. I remembered the gist of the story and the powerful ending, but many of the details I had to recreate. I first incorporated the fairytale as a story within a story in my novel Planet New York. There, the interaction between characters made it a logical part of the plot.
So, here’s the fairy tale. Please tell me what you think.
A long time ago, in a faraway place, a poor boy lived with his mother in a dirt hut on the outskirts of a city. His father was dead, and he didn’t have brothers or sisters. The mother worked hard to feed the boy and clothe him. The boy grew stronger and more handsome every day, and the mother loved him more than anything else in the world. He became an adolescent, almost a man, but she still called him ‘my little boy.’ For her, he would always remain a child. If he were upset or worried, she’d hug him, and tussle his hair. “Are you hurt, little boy?” she’d ask. “Don’t be, and remember that you are my light, my life, my reason for being.”
She would do anything for her little boy. Anything.
One day, the boy saw a beautiful maiden walk through the streets of the city. She looked lost, but acted calmly and with reassurance. Her clothes were expensive.
“I’ll lead you where you want to go,” the boy told the maiden.
She looked at him with eyes that shone like cold crystals, and took his hand in her own. “I’m unhappy. They’ll find me no matter where I go” the maiden said, and he didn’t understand who ‘they’ were, but he didn’t dare ask her any questions. He was so taken by her presence, so confused and elated. He walked next to her through the streets, and the streets seemed more beautiful to him than ever. He cherished the touch of her hand, laughed when she laughed, and listened when she chatted. He told her everything about himself and his mother. As the evening fell and darkness took over, he heard rushed steps approaching. Before he had a chance to turn around and look, hands covered his eyes and strong arms lifted him off the ground. He lost grip of his maiden. When they lowered him back down, the young maiden had disappeared.
The boy vowed to find her. He was concerned for her fate, convinced she had been abducted. He didn’t know who she was, or where she came from. The sting of love pierced him deeply.
He wouldn’t eat or drink, and couldn’t sleep at night. His mother witnessed his pain. She asked him many questions, but he didn’t say anything, and she took his silence with her to work, and cried for his suffering.
While he didn’t talk to his mother, he inquired around and soon he found out. The maiden was the daughter of the local ruler. The brilliant palace in the center of town was her father’s, and armed soldiers guarded the large marble steps leading to the entrance. She had wandered into the streets out of boredom, and her father had sent the servants to find her. The people who talked to the boy shuddered, calling the maiden the Princess with Crystal Eyes, because she had the reputation of being as cold as crystal.
“She is as reckless as she’s beautiful,” the people told the boy, but the boy didn’t listen.
He went to the steps and waited for her. And waited.
One day she came out, surrounded by her servants.
“Young Princess!” he yelled running towards her. He didn’t know what to call her.
The soldiers stepped forth to block him.
The maiden saw him and smiled a vain smile. “Let him through,” she ordered.
“Young Princess, I want to be with you,” he said. “I love you.”
“He loves her,” mocked the soldiers.
“My father has brought many suitors to me,” said the maiden. “How am I to know who loves me the most?”
“This vagrant loves you the most,” scuffed the servants.
“You are my light,” the boy said, “my life, my reason for being.”
“My suitors bring me many gifts,” said the maiden. “They are made of rare stones and precious metals. The more they love me, the more valuable their gifts are.”
“What can I bring you from my hut made of dirt?” the poor boy asked the maiden.
Her eyes regarded him with cold amusement. “I’ll go to the park with my servants. When I come back, as a token of your love, bring me your mother’s heart as a present.”
The soldiers and the servants laughed as the boy turned and walked away, bent over, as if carrying a heavy burden. First he walked, and then he started to run to the outskirts of the city. The maiden won’t be long in the garden.
His mother wasn’t home so he went to her work. She was sitting alone, in a small room, sewing. He swung a blade at her back, cracked her ribs open, and pulled out her heart with his fingers. He felt consoled by the fact that she hadn’t seen him.
Her heart was warm in his hand as he ran to the palace. Blood dripped in the dust of the street, and on his bare feet and his clothing. He caught a glimpse of the maiden at the top of the steps walking towards the entrance. The soldiers surrounded her. He dashed up the steps, slid on blood, and came tumbling down. The heart flew out of his hand. He’d miss his maiden, he feared, and opened his eyes in pain and anger.
The heart lay next to his face, still beating on the marble step. “Are you hurt, little boy?” the heart asked him in a forlorn, dying voice. “Are you hurt, my darling?