She saw the man sneaking into her garden, headed for the rampions. She sighed. ‘Not again,’ she thought. ‘Weren’t the ones he stole last night enough?” She went down to the castle’s garden and waited for him by the wall.
She didn’t have to wait for long. He came back in a couple of minutes, his arms full of violet rampions. He had a relieved look on his face, which quickly changed to one of terror as she stepped out of the shadows.
“D…Da…Dame G…Gothel!” he stuttered in fear. The rampions fell out of his trembling hands and rolled on the ground around his feet.
“Yes,” she snapped. “How dare you steal anything from my garden! And the rampions, no less! I spend months cultivating them and you steal them all, night after night. You shall pay for this!”
“Please, madame,” the terrified man cowered. “Have mercy on me! My wife is pregnant and craves the perfectly grown rampions from your garden to the point of death. I am but a poor man; I cannot afford to buy the rampions from the market. Punish me if you must, but please let me fulfil my wife’s cravings.”
She softened inwardly; the man was earnest in his request. Besides, everyone knew how scary a pregnant woman could be, especially when her cravings weren’t fulfilled.
“Alright,” she replied. “You can take as many of the rampions for your pregnant wife as you like, and when you like. In return,” she narrowed her eyes, “in return, I want the baby your wife will give birth to. I will look after it, take care of it as my own child and make sure it lives in happiness and wants for nothing. So, do you agree?”
The man was stunned. To give up his child as a result of his actions tonight! Preposterous! He was about to say as such when he saw the look in Dame Gothel’s eyes and balked. The enchantress was a formidable person normally, and it would be unwise to go against her wishes when she was angry. In that frightened state of mind, he thought of his house, his work and his wife. They barely had enough money to feed themselves everyday, and a child would need good, nourishing food for it to grow strong. Dame Gothel would, no doubt, be able to provide that easily. Although a feared enchantress, she was rich. She had made a name for herself as the best healer in the nearby parts. On that thought, he decided and agreed to her conditions.
Dame Gothel nodded once and let him go.
“D…Dame Gothel?” the man hesitated before leaving. “Will we be able to meet the child?”
“No!” the enchantress snarled, then quickly lowered her voice. “You will not be allowed to meet or see her. It will disrupt the child and would keep it from adjusting to life in the castle. I will not allow it. For all matters and purposes, it will be my child from the moment it is born.”
The man, dismayed, bowed low before turning and leaving. He knew better than to aggravate her further by arguing against her statement.
A few months later, a beautiful baby girl was born to the couple. The man conveyed the news to Dame Gothel and kept his promise. She came immediately to take the child away to her castle. The girl was named Rapunzel, after the flowers her father had stolen.
Dame Gothel doted on her daughter from the very first moment, though she kept a stern demeanour. She was the apple of the healer’s eye, and precisely the reason why the girl was kept secluded. Her only companions, from a very young age, were the animals in the premises of the castle, the birds that flew around twittering and Dame Gothel herself. Grizelda Gothel did not want any harm to come to her daughter and did everything in her power to ensure that.
Rapunzel was a wonderful child, exceptionally bright and intelligent. From a very young age, she showed signs of becoming an expert healer and potion-maker. It was clear that she would be a stunning beauty one day, with a heart shaped face framed by long, soft golden hair, expressive doe-eyes, a pert little nose, and delicate lips. Rapunzel had a strong will and determination, and a beautiful voice. The only mar in her perfection were her tantrums. They were few and far between, but ear-splitting, nerve-wracking and headache -inducing when they occurred. Grizelda knew well how to deal with them, though. Which is why Grizelda was surprised at her own decision to give in when Rapunzel demanded to go out into the village and make friends. For a 12-year-old, she backed it up with some compelling arguments.
After spending a good hour and a half trying not to be swayed by her daughter’s arguments, Grizelda held up a hand to stop the wailing girl. “I would like it very much indeed if I could keep you here in this castle and not let you come in touch with the imbeciles outside. Humans are heartless, and they will hurt you, sooner or later.”
Grizelda sighed. She did not want her daughter to be traumatized by her fellow humans, as had happened to her so many years ago. It wasn’t easy to be accepted into the society as a female healer when those positions were reserved for men. A successful one like her, was branded an imposter, or worse, a witch. And Grizelda had paid the price of her success by having her home burned down multiple times in different villages. After Rapunzel’s birth, Grizelda had moved across the country to a small, nondescript village in the middle of nowhere to ensure that nothing of the sort would ever happen to her daughter. The villagers here respected the Dame, but also were afraid of her. And she wanted to keep it that way for it ensured a safe distance from the commoners.
“But,” she continued, “because you have a valid argument for going out and learning about the outside world, I will take you to the village gardens thrice every week, for some time. You may talk to and play with the children there, as long as you remain in my line of sight. If I say we have to leave, you will comply without hesitation. You will play only with the children I approve of.” Grizelda softened her manner and cupped Rapunzel’s cheek. “You are a gifted child, my darling, and it would not do you good to mingle with the brats who aren’t worthy of you. I do not want to see you get hurt.”
“Oh, Mother. I won’t get hurt at all!” Rapunzel assured quickly, giddy with excitement at the thought of going out into the world. “I will do exactly as you say, and you will see that your fears are wrong!”
And that is how mother and daughter started going to the village every week.
At first, no kid would play with Rapunzel, and no adult interacted with Dame Gothel. Over a period of many weeks and just as many sniffles late at night, Rapunzel made a few friends. Grizelda, on her part, remained ever-watchful, never letting Rapunzel out of her sight. She never acknowledged the people around her, except to nod curtly when someone greeted her. It was an unspoken rule among the villagers to not approach Dame Gothel about a problem or illness when she was out with her daughter. Rapunzel, happy that she had made friends, made sure that her mother found nothing to chastise her about. She studied hard and was showing the same brilliance in potion-making that her mother had shown a few decades ago. Grizelda, now, even allowed her to brew entire healing potions on her own. The Dame found it hard to deny that things were going better than she had anticipated.
It was too good to last.
A few months after New Year’s, a new family moved into the village. The couple had three sons, all of whom seemed to be just older than Rapunzel. The children quickly accepted them into their group, though the boys always seemed to shy away from Rapunzel.
The following Sunday, to welcome the new family, some of the kids planned to bake cakes and cookies. Enthusiastic as she was, Rapunzel wanted to pitch in and do her part. Naturally, Grizelda would hear none of it. After yet another tantrum which ended in a truce, Rapunzel was allowed to bake a simple cake, and Grizelda agreed to help her with it. On Sunday, the little girl excitedly presented her offering, only to have it thrown to the ground and stamped upon.
“Do you really think we would even touch anything you made?” the eldest boy hissed as he pushed Rapunzel to the ground. The rest of the children started gathering around the girl.
“You are trying to poison us!” the boy continued as he and his brothers circled the poor girl. “Our aunt has told us all about you! You are a wicked witch, just like your mother! Go away! We don’t want you here!”
By the time Grizelda made her way to the centre of the crowd, Rapunzel was in tears, trying to find a way out. The boys had started a chant of “Witch!” and kept blocking her way.
“What is going on here?” thundered the enchantress as she hurried forward to scoop Rapunzel into her arms. “Scram, now, or you will bear the brunt of my wrath!”
The boys paled, and took off, the other children scuttling away behind them. Without wasting any more time, Grizelda hurried home with Rapunzel. Rapunzel tried putting on a brave face and sticking up for her other friends, but the damage was done. The boys’ hurtful taunts and accusations had effectively stamped out the bud of hope that had begun growing in the enchantress’ heart.
“Never again will you step outside this castle! I will no longer tolerate any tantrums and arguments about going out into the world. You saw how the boys acted, how they did not hesitate to call you a witch, and because of what? Because you, a girl, excel in studying herbs and making potions and healing others, when in this society, this age and this world, it is deemed a proper profession only for a man. Notice how the other children did not jump to your defence. Not one of them was ready to take a stand and stop the bullies, for deep down, they are afraid of you and me too. Deep down, they believe the stories, the rumours, that are told in hushed tones in the village. Do you, still, think they are your friends? Do you think that tomorrow, or the day after, when this has become old talk, the children will come and ask you to play with them, or that their parents will let them? Enough of this madness, Rapunzel! I agreed to let you go out into the world, but I had warned you of the actions of others that could hurt you. Now you will listen to me, and stay in this castle. You want a friend, I will be your friend. You want company, I will gladly give you company. But, my love, I will not let you venture out into that heartless world again. This, I vow.” Having had her say, Grizelda slammed the door of her room shut, leaving the girl standing in the middle of the room, saddened and heartbroken.
Thus the years passed, with Grizelda providing Rapunzel with everything she needed, except the company of other humans. Rapunzel, the memory of the incident and her mother’s vow ever fresh in her mind, accepted the situation, and, indeed, thought it to be for the best. She had grown up to be a beauty, her looks only enhanced by her fit figure, made strong by her daily chores. Regular horse riding, and other ‘manly’ activities that her mother had made her learn to help her be self-sufficient, had strengthened her muscles. Her hair, long enough to form a large pool of gold around her feet when it wasn’t braided, lent an air of etherealness. Her voice rendered the listener speechless by its sweetness. Truth be told, Grizelda Gothel was immensely proud of her daughter.
But that didn’t mean Grizelda was ready to lower her guard. When she went out on errands or for work, Rapunzel was instructed to lock the gates and the main doors from within, and when she returned, she made sure to call out to Rapunzel to let her know that it was safe to open the gates.
“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair,
Mother will braid it before you go to bed.”
Around the castle, the Dame had grown trees and brambles to create a natural barrier that helped hide the castle from prying eyes. No person, neither villager nor outsider, ever dared to venture towards that side of the woods.
So it would have remained, had the prince of the neighbouring land, lost in the woods near the castle, not overheard the exchange. Not knowing any stories about Dame Gothel and her child, the prince observed the exchange for a good few days. Once he was sure about the routine, he decided to find out who “Rapunzel” was. The next morning, after the healer went away for her work, the prince crept out of his hiding place and called out softly, just as he had heard Dame Gothel do. Just as he had expected, the garden gate opened immediately and he slipped inside. To his surprise, he found a beautiful lady holding the door open, looking just as stunned as he felt. Before he could react, however, he was pressed up against the gate, a silver knife at his throat. Something wrapped tightly around his hands rendering them motionless behind his back.
“Who are you? How did you find this castle? Speak!” The elegant lady had transformed into an alert warrior.
“I mean no harm, milady. I was lost in the woods, and overheard the other lady murmuring. Curious, I stayed for a few days to see who ‘Rapunzel’ was. I did not expect to see such an exquisite beauty, assuming, of course, that you are Rapunzel?” When she gave a curt nod, he calmly continued. “I am a prince, and come from the neighbouring kingdom. I was in this land on a quest, and was returning home when I lost my way here. Once again, let me assure you that I mean you neither harm nor ill-will.”
Satisfied with his answer, and hesitatingly curious about interacting with another human being, Rapunzel lowered the knife and took a step back, removing the coils of hair from around his wrists. Soon, curiosity took hold of both of them, and they struck up a conversation. It was only when the sun started setting, that Rapunzel became fully aware of what had transpired.
“Mother would be home soon! You must leave immediately! It will be extremely unpleasant if she were to find out that an outsider had been here; that I had spoken to an outsider! Go!”
Having heard part of her story, he sighed and got up to leave. “Would you like to meet me again? I have a few weeks till I am needed at home.”
Rapunzel bit her lip and debated with herself. Even though the incident in her childhood was fresh in her mind, many years had passed since. Spending the day with the prince had ignited her curiosity about how the world functioned. Also, the prince had been nothing but genteel in his behaviour towards her, which had emboldened her to let her guard down just a bit. Thus coming to a decision, Rapunzel nodded.
From that day onwards, the two met frequently,spending long hours talking about various things. The prince found Rapunzel’s extensive knowledge of potion-making incredible; sometimes exceeding that of his father’s, the King’s, healers. Her strength and her combative abilities astonished him. On her part, Rapunzel was enraptured by the prince’s experiences and his stories of the world. His strength in combat was admirable, his formal manner of speaking strange, but exceedingly funny, and his opinions were well-developed and unbiased. Though they parted every evening an hour before Dame Gothel’s return without fail, there was a glow to Rapunzel’s face that she had to try hard to hide from her observant mother.
If Grizelda noticed anything different about her daughter, she never mentioned it. Maybe she hoped her daughter would tell her about whatever it was, or maybe she thought the colour on her daughter’s cheeks was due to the chilly winter air. No matter the thought behind it, Grizelda never asked Rapunzel about it till, one day, she brought it up herself.
Sitting her mother down, Rapunzel told her about everything that had happened from the beginning. Grizelda listened silently, her eyes never revealing the emotions broiling in her heart, as her darling girl told her about their first meeting, the meetings after that, their talks, and of her desire to live with him in his kingdom.After a long-drawn silence, Grizelda voiced her misgivings.
“And does he want the same? For you to live with him in his kingdom, among his people? Does he ‘approve’ of you being a healer? That you would continue being a healer to the people even after getting married to a prince? And what if some incident happens – some incident like the one in the village garden so many years ago – what then? Would he stay by your side against the oppressors? Have you asked yourself these questions, and truthfully answered them?” Grizelda spoke softly, surprising her daughter. Rapunzel had not expected her mother to discuss this so calmly. “If you have answered these questions truthfully and satisfactorily, then I will give you my blessing. However, it needs to be said, I give you my blessing not because I approve of it, but because you have decided it is what you want, and because it makes you happy. I have given you everything I could to keep you happy, and you have wanted for nothing. You are old enough to decide what it is that you want. I sincerely hope, my child, that you will never have cause to regret your actions.” Saying so, Grizelda Gothel pressed a kiss to Rapunzel’s forehead and made her way to her room.
The next day, the young prince came knocking on the door to ask for Rapunzel’s hand in marriage. Rapunzel smiled at her mother, providing a silent answer to the long list of questions asked the night before, and Dame Gothel gave them both her blessings.
“May you live happily together, Rapunzel and Philip. I give you my wishes now, for I will not be attending your wedding. No, Rapunzel, I will not be swayed on this matter,” Grizelda added before her daughter could say anything. “I have experienced the world many times before, and have no wish to do so again. Here, in this castle, in these woods, is everything I will need. Also, tell no one of your home, and come here only when you are in dire need. Let this be your safe haven lest you ever need to disappear from the public eye. Go safely, now.”
A few days later, the wedding took place in the prince’s kingdom, a grand affair that thousands of people attended. Rapunzel looked radiant, ready to experience the outer world again.
Mothers have a knack of knowing if there is something wrong with their children, no matter where they are. Dame Gothel was no different. A couple of years after Rapunzel’s wedding, the dame was out in the woods collecting herbs, when she suddenly wheeled her horse about and galloped towards her castle, sure that Rapunzel was in trouble. When she reached home, everything was calm; nothing looked amiss. Questioning whether her instinct was wrong for once, Grizelda was making her way inside, when the sound of a horse’s hooves met her ears just before the garden gate burst open and Rapunzel rode in. Jumping off the horse, she rushed into her mother’s embrace.
“Could I stay here for a while?”
“Of course, Rapunzel, my darling girl! But what is the matter? Did Philip do something? Is someone in his kingdom giving you trouble? What is it?” Grizelda questioned worriedly.
“You were right, Mother,” Rapunzel whispered, holding on tightly to her biggest source of comfort. “But you were also wrong. The village garden incident happened again, in a bigger way. For the past few months, the King’s healers weren’t able to cure a new disease that had been troubling quite a few villages up north. When I asked if I could help, they first laughed at me. In spite of that, I observed the disease, the patients and came up with a medicine for it. The patients I tried it on quickly recovered. Determined to prove to the Royal healers that I could help, I spoke to the head healer. Instead of accepting my help and the medicine, he accused me, in front of the entire court, of being a witch and using magic to cure the patients. The man demanded that I be burnt at the stake and had the other healers and the rest of the court clamouring for my death. It was only because Philip helped me escape that I reached here safely.”
Drawing back, but remaining in the embrace, Rapunzel continued in a stronger voice. “So you see, Mother, you were right about the world being a harsh, heartless place. But you were wrong when you said that venturing out into the world will be the worst thing I could do. The world is a beautiful place, and I do not regret stepping out into it one bit. It has taught me a lot many things that I would never have learnt by staying inside the castle walls. The new medicine I made, I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t spoken to those patients, those people in the outside world. Yes, you were right about the struggle a woman has to go through to stand out in a man’s world. That part about men feeling threatened by my abilities and self-sufficiency isn’t wrong either. But you were wrong about nobody standing up for me. You were wrong when you said that I will have to face the cruel world alone. You don’t always need all your friends to stand up for you. You stood up for me, that time in the village garden, and Philip stood up for me in the royal court; even if only two people closest to you defend you, it is enough to restore your confidence in yourself and keep fighting. You don’t always need to become a huge oak that can withstand the strongest gale. Being a weed and tirelessly coming up in the most unexpected places is important too. Your fight…our fight…isn’t against the men in this world; our fight is for the women in this world. It might seem fanciful to think that women will be accepted and welcomed as men’s equals for their talents, abilities and skills, but it is not impossible. Can you accept that? Can you give the world a chance? Can you let go of the hurt caused by the men who didn’t know better?”
Cupping her mother’s cheek for a brief moment, Rapunzel made her way inside the castle.
A few weeks later, Rapunzel stood at the gate, looking up at the sky. The weather seemed quite fickle; it could start pouring any moment. As she was about to mount her stallion, the clop of hooves made her turn around. To her surprise, her mother was making her way over to her, dressed in formal attire. As she neared, Grizelda Gothel gave a smile to Rapunzel. With a nod in return, Rapunzel urged her horse forward. Side-by-side, mother and daughter, together, made their way to the village after 20 years.