Rumpelstilskin: A Modern Retelling

He was conventionally attractive, someone who could have posed for the cover of a Harlequin romance novel, long Jesus-locks flowing, a bespeckled Jordan Catalano in head-to-toe Brooks Brothers.

Vanessa Willoughby

March 31, 2014 | Gold | April 2014

rumplestiltskin 1Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, where women forked over gobsmacking amounts of their sugar daddy’s effortlessly earned Benjamins to freeze their waxy faces, there was a man who had a beautiful daughter. She was beautiful, but in a way that suggested the meeting of accidental charisma coupled with a disdain for archaic beauty standards. She lived in hand-me-down jeans, Hanes t-shirts and knock-off Keds. She read too many books for her own good, soaked them up like fine wine. She was a born reader and anyone could tell; her appetite for voluminous tomes was her signature trait, a hunger that could never be quenched, something that terrified otherwise reasonable men. They were not used to a girl who saw the world in color. They were not comfortable with a girl who knew that the keys to her salvation could be found in the musty pages of library books.

The man worked in a General Mills factory. He knew that even with his hourly earnings combined with his laughable retirement plan, he would never make enough money to send his daughter off to the elite liberal arts college that she pined over while stuck in trigonometry class.

It seemed nothing short of a miracle when the man was summoned to a meeting with the Head Overseer of the factory. The man had never seen the Head Overseer, had never spoken two words to him, but he knew the Overseer’s face as though it were a tattoo inscribed beneath his heart, tucked beneath his bird-bone ribs. The Head Overseer’s face was plastered everywhere on glossy posters, usually accompanied by cheesy corporate slogans that essentially encouraged employee selflessness, even if it meant ratting on your co-worker for leaving an hour early to pick up his or her child from daycare or coming into work with the flu because you didn’t have any sick days left.

When the man entered the bright and shiny office, the Overseer had his pug nose pressed to stacks of white paper. The man closed the door with a bit more force than necessary.

“It looks like you’re one of the fastest on the assembly line!” the Overseer crowed. He had beady eyes the color of a doberman’s matted fur. He wore a pinky ring and twisted it around and around and around. He radiated “Tinseltown Evil Villain #1.” All he needed was a perfectly coiffed mustache.

“Well, yes, I suppose so, I-”

The Overseer cut him off with a chuckle, the sound more of a deep-throated snort than a laugh. The man folded his hands in his lap and hung his head, as though he were a disobedient schoolboy about to get whacked with a yardstick.

“I also hear that you’ve been getting awfully close with some of our….high-spirited workers.”

The man tried to swallow. It felt like cat talons dragging down the pink insides of his throat. The man wasn’t too good with crossword puzzles or Sudoku but he understood the Overseer’s sour-smelling threat. Those “high-spirited workers” were currently on strike, picketing the factory right outside the gates with homemade signs. They demanded livable wages, extended vacation/holiday/sick leave, and quality health care. The man knew that these people were only flies in the ointment for the company’s greed-infused bigwigs; they would simply fire the rabble rousers and replace them with spineless workers. They were all just bodies to them, not human beings.

“I-I don’t know, I don’t know anything-”

The Overseer put his hand up as though silencing a dog. The man clammed up. He crossed his ankles. Tried to straighten up in the metal chair. Tried not to focus on his growling stomach. Five minutes of his lunch break had vanished.

“I know we haven’t spoken much, but I like you. You’re one of the few skilled workers we have. You’re valuable. I’d hate to see you go all due to some miscommunication…”

“I have a daughter!” the man blurted out. He didn’t know why he responded this way. It seemed like the only sensible thing to do. Counteract the Overseer’s maliciousness with an offer, a bargaining of goods.

“Oh, really? And how old is your daughter?”

“She’s seventeen.”

“Ah, seventeen. Lovely, lovely age. Great Stevie Nicks song, as well,” the Overseer grinned.

“Yes, she’s beautiful. She looks just like her mother. She can sew, too. She can sew just about anything. She sews dresses that look like they could be from those fashion magazines,” the man gushed. It was half-true: his daughter could sew. But he’d never seen all of her creations and she barely picked up fashion magazines.

“Well, well, well. Your daughter can sew? My daughter is having a sweet sixteen party next weekend and she needs a dress. She won’t let us take her shopping. She doesn’t want to wear anything that someone else might wear. If your daughter is as good as a seamstress as she is, bring her to my house tomorrow evening. She can stay with us while she makes the dress. She’ll have everything she could need at her disposal.”

The man’s lips worked themselves into a shaky, watery smile and he wiped his sweaty palms on his pants.

The next day, he dropped off his daughter at the Overseer’s house at the gate. They wouldn’t let him drive his battered Toyota truck up the driveway, in fear of what the neighbors would say.

***

rumplestiltskin 2

The daughter was lead to a small room with one window. It was equipped with a twin bed, a desk, a chair, an electric sewing machine, a crooked bookcase with empty shelves, a radio, and the miles and miles of gold fabric that the Overseer’s daughter had chosen. As soon as the door shut with a cold and authoritative click, the daughter began to cry. How would she finish this dress in time when she had never worked an electric sewing machine in her life?

She threw herself on the bed and began to choke on her tears. Suddenly, there was a splitting of wood and a gush of air. The door opened to reveal a tiny man with the craggy face of a pirate. He was dressed like a middle-aged man trying desperately to pass for twenty-one: sagging diaper jeans like Justin Bieber, gold grill, limited edition Nikes, and a Chicago Bulls throwback jersey.

“Why are you crying, beautiful one?” the tiny man asked. With the exception of his height, the man was an ordinary man, one who had been regularly dealt the fuzzy end of the lollipop. He was a generous family man and loved his cat. But at the house of the Overseer, he was simply the groundskeeper, the one who got his hands dirty because no one else wanted to, nothing more than a shadow.

“I have to make a gown for a sixteen year old’s birthday party and I don’t know how to sew!” she wailed.

The confession spilled from her mouth like a hiccup.

“I can sew.”

“You can?”

“Of course. But only if you give me something in return.”

The daughter looked at herself and then around the room. She had nothing to give except…

“Here. Take this ring.” It was her mother’s engagement band.

The tiny man snatched his prize, shoved the daughter out of the way, and stationed himself at the sewing machine, his little foot pounding away at the pedal.

***

The dress was finished in less than a week. When the Overseer saw the dress, he was flabbergasted. He hadn’t expected the daughter to produce such a pretty piece of fabric with highly detailed embroidery. It could’ve come straight off the runway! When his wife heard of the daughter’s creation, she begged the Overseer to let the daughter stay on for another week in order to make her a dress. The daughter was afraid of saying no, so she retreated to her cramped quarters. At a quarter to midnight, the tiny man appeared.

“What will you give me if I make this dress for the Misses?”

The daughter bit her bottom lip, tried to ignore the chaos brewing in her gut like the ingredients of a bubbling cauldron.

“I have nothing left to give you,” she said.

The tiny man thought for a moment. Somehow, he’d been struck by the genius of a vivid premonition.

“This is how it’s gonna be. You will marry a handsome man. On your wedding night, you will repay your debts with your youth.”

The daughter, heartsick and oblivious to the treachery of his chilling promise, stuck out her hand. The tiny man laughed and they shook on it. A few days later, the dress for the Misses was finished, a modified replica of her daughter’s sweet sixteen frock. An invitation to the party was compensation for the daughter’s labor.

At the party, she met a young man who would eventually (a year and five months later) become her husband. He was conventionally attractive, someone who could have posed for the cover of a Harlequin romance novel, long Jesus-locks flowing, a bespeckled Jordan Catalano in head-to-toe Brooks Brothers. He was the eldest son of the Overseer, having come home from Brown for the occasion. She knew that she loved him because he kissed her with his eyes open, transfixed by her beauty, by the caramel color of her eyes, the pink of her mouth, the splash of red swiped across her cheeks.

“You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met,” he whispered in her ear. The daughter held him close, lost in the world, lost in saccharine delirium.

***

runplestiltskin 3

The daughter forgot about her promise to the tiny man. On her wedding night, he appeared. The wedding had taken place at the Overseer’s mansion.

“Where is my payment?” the tiny man demanded.

“Please, sir, I can’t. My husband loves my beauty and if I give it away, he won’t love me anymore.”

The tiny man shook his head.

“I will be not swayed by your tears, m’dear. Fair is fair.”

The daughter wept, paralyzed in place. The tiny man had consulted his cousin via Facebook, a crafty witch doctor who lived in New Orleans. The cousin had sent him the incantation and the potions that would supposedly bottle up the daughter’s youth. You see, the tiny man was tired of hearing his wife lament the loss of her looks and he was tired of looking at her face, lined and weathered and leathery, a face that had once been a spitting copy of Rita Moreno in West Side Story. He didn’t know if it would work, but he was hell bent on trying.

Just as he was about to finish the last stanza of the spell, the bedroom door burst open.

“Karl! I thought father had fired you after you leaked that information about my mother’s affair to the Enquirer! Get out of here before I call the police!”

The tiny man, now known as Karl, growled like a dog and then disappeared in the night.

Alas, it was too late.

The handsome groom put his hand on his new bride’s shoulder. She turned around to reveal a makeup free face, scrubbed of the expensive coats of Chanel and Dior that had amplified her beauty. It took him a few minutes to recognize this new face.

Alas, she was no longer beautiful, but worst of all: average.

Forgettable.

***

Illustrations by Laura C.

Vanessa Willoughby graduated from The New School in 2011. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, xoJane.com, Thought Catalog, and KieseLaymon.com.

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