**In class we were tasked with taking an excerpt from a published work and finishing it in our own style. The excerpt below is from The White Cat by Marjorie Sandor, originally published in The Fairy Tale Review, The Blue Issue, 2006. The excerpt is italicized and the rest is my own work**
In the stories you liked best as a child, my love, there was always a terrible repetition of tests. The hero, in order to win a wife and make his fortune, sets out full of confidence to retrieve some object not even precious to himself. He was driven by the father-king who, facing the wobbling end of his reign, was in an unusually selfish wheeling mood. And, let’s face it, this father had never been a noble fellow: forever trying to steal a kingdom, or defend his own against imagined enemies.
Three times the hero plunges back into the unknown world he has by dream or accident discovered, where the treasure – coveted by the king, whose hungers are unconscious and therefore impossible to sate – lies surrounded by obstacle, tedium, dragon. Three times he plunges in, three times risks his life to get the prize: first it’s the golden apple; second, the magical linen woven of thread so fine the whole cloth can pass through the smallest needle; and, at last, the tiniest dog in the world, who can be heard barking inside a corn kernel, itself enclosed in a walnut shell.
The trouble is, in that other world, there appears someone more alluring than the object of the quest, for instance a beautiful white cat who begs them to stay – without words of course. Please stay. Take the treasure back to the king, but come back. I need you here. I am forbidden to say why.
But it is of the utmost importance that you return. In these stories, the hero – blond-haired and blue eyed as he always is – becomes lost in the wide, deep, golden eyes of this silky feline, her hair falling like snow around her tiny padded feet. He sees something almost human in her gaze. He strokes her hair and promises on pain of death to return; he swears it. She buries her head in the nook of his cupped palm and sings her pleasure deep in her throat. Our hero plunges his way through a deep and darkened forest, in these tales of yours, the treasure tucked safely in a pocket or threaded on a chain around his neck. He crosses a silver lake on a magical boat made of birch and cobwebs; he makes camp between a copse of trees and slumbers under a blood red moon. He awakens to slay a wolf in the witching hour, just past midnight, with nary a scratch on his delicate face to show for it. He outwits a cunning wood nymph whom no one before has ever outwitted, and solves the riddle to cross the toll bridge, leaving the troll there gnashing his teeth and tearing out his hair.
He returns to the king and delivers the treasure; this treasure found with the help of the white cat, who is by now a blurry memory in the exhausted hero’s mind. But who can blame him, he is so tired. The monarch’s eyes gleam with greed and he thanks the hero by offering him the hand of his most beautiful daughter, because women are only a form of currency in your tales, like cows or goats in a small village. Your hero accepts the offer although the memory of his promise nags at him, pulls the hairs at the back of his neck tight. He decides he is misremembering. He decides it is impossible to make such promises to animals, who have no souls to speak of. Instead, he marries the princess in a large celebration attended by all the nobles from all the neighbouring lands.
The hero is dancing with his new wife, who has no name and no discernible features save her gold-spun hair and ruby red lips. He is dancing with her and it is then that he sees, from the corner of his eye: a beautiful woman with hair as silver as coin flowing down her back. Her skin glows like the moon reflected on a still and placid lake. Her walk is smooth like lava flowing down rock. She turns her head to face him and he sees her eyes and they are wide and gold and deep and angry. A shiver crawls down his back like a ghoul sliding down his spine, and he is afraid. Surely you know, familiar as you are with these tales, that this is the cat your hero had left behind. Our hero knows this too; he is no fool. A dancing couple twirls and prances and he loses sight of the woman with the feline eyes. He looks back into the dull but pretty face of his new bride. He drinks more wine and eats more food and dances more dances and looks and looks and looks, but she is gone without a trace. He knows this is a bad omen, and so do you, but there is nothing to be done but let this play out.
The hero’s new life goes on and his memories of promises dull and splinter. Soon enough after their wedding the princess’s belly is high and round and full to bursting with child, because princesses are always fertile things that bear their husbands strong boys and beautiful (but useless) girls, in your tales. Our hero wants for nothing; he is rich and married and about to become a father; he is merry and arrogant but surely you know by now that pain and tragedy are on their way.
The night our hero’s firstborn will take his first breath in the world, a white cat turns up at the castle doors. The cook is so taken with its silky fur and its wide, golden, almost human eyes that she lets it in. A pure white animal signals luck and fortune in this world; surely a good omen on this auspicious night.
The princess is in her birthing room at the top of the tower, surrounded by her midwife and maidens; the hero is in the dining hall drinking with his mates. The white cat stalks into the room and watches as he sloshes his mead upon the floor, giddy with the good cheer of his friends. She is waiting for him to see her. The hunting dogs lazed about the room go crazy with her scent and it is their ferocious barking that alerts him to her presence. He looks into her golden eyes and his blood runs cold. As she turns and pads her way up the stairs, our hero is sat like stone while the men around him sing off-key and slap his back. But in a moment, he flings back his chair and races towards the top of the tower, towards his wife and their unborn child.
It is then that he hears the screaming.
The tower has never felt so tall, so very far away. The hero stumbles and falters up the stairs, grabbing at columns with every twist and turn upwards. The liquor in his blood slows him down even as his heart races so fast he fears it will rip right out of his chest. The screams and wails of women are the beat to which his footsteps fall.
After a few minutes and a thousand years, he makes it to the tower room, his breath ragged and hitching in his chest. Our hero flings open the heavy doors and rushes inside…but he is too late to save the day. There is only blood, pooled on the floor, awash on the walls, and dripping from the candelabras. There is one body, two bodies, three bodies, four. A delicate trail of bloody paw prints lead from his dead wife and her maidens to the window sill. But no baby. No baby at all. Our hero sinks to his knees and wails, for all is lost and can never again be found.
And it is here, at the end of your tale, that you learn the true moral of this story: that a promise made on pain of death must always be kept, for the death may not be your own.