Stepmothers and the Big Bad Wolf

Stepmothers and the Big Bad Wolf

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781933767413
Publisher: CBAY Books
Publication date: 11/01/2014
Series: Fairy Tales Reimagined , #1
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 196
Sales rank: 913,100
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 13 - 17 Years

About the Author

Stepmothers and the Big Bad Wolf contains 10 new stories by great authors Susan Bianculli, Jeanne Kramer-Smyth, Ameria Lewis, Pamela McNamee, Laura Ring, Judy Rubin, Hope Erica Schultz, Madeline Smoot, and C.H. Spalding.

Read an Excerpt

Stepmothers and the Big Bad Wolf

Fairy Tale Villains Reimagined

By Madeline Smoot

CBAY Books

Copyright © 2014 Madeline Smoot
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-933767-96-3


Soteli Ma

Laura Ring

The court astrologers said a great cataclysm was coming — an alignment of stars and planets not seen since the demon Ravana stole Sita from the hand of Lord Rama. We didn't pay much attention. My father's advisors were always warning of something: Famine. Plague. Invaders from beyond the Black Waters.

But in the months that followed, strange rumors began to spread — sightings of monsters, shapeshifters, a giant carp that sprouted human lips, warning of "nets that will block out the sun;" a fig tree with human arms that seized peasant children, fresh from their bath in the Yamuna. The people talked of rakshasa, deos — demonic spirits long consigned to the pages of books, to the tapestries hanging on the palace walls. My father dismissed the talk as fancy or fear-mongering.

Then one day, we noticed that the palace djinns were gone. They no longer hovered on the terrace at dusk to say their prayers or raced on the rooftops, knocking over tiles and upsetting planters. No one could remember the djinns leaving before.

We should have paid attention. But we did not. Summer passed. Farmers brought in the monsoon harvest. Revenue collectors collected. Court life continued as always, with feasts and games, weddings, and the royal hunt.

On the 10th day of Rajab, my good father the king rode out with a hunting party on the trail of a white tiger. When his arrow struck the beast, it transformed into a demoness — a rakshasi as tall as the surrounding banyan trees. She struck down my father with one swipe of her taloned hand, and by week's end, I found myself in a wood-and-thatch hut, at the edge of the kingdom, with Soteli Ma.

When my lady mother died five years ago, my father did not lack for comfort. All the courtesans in the palace waited to take my mother's place, just as they waited fruitlessly while she lived, to join her as co-wife in the royal quarters. I do not know why he married a nameless girl from the eastern hills, who spoke not a single word during her seven-day wedding and then left the palace never to return. Even a child could see that she was beautiful, in the way that wild things sometimes can be. But she lacked the graces of a noblewoman of the court. She was gifted neither in dancing, nor singing, nor, as I was to discover, conversation.

When my father's steward deposited me without explanation or ceremony at my stepmother's door, Soteli Ma stood stone-faced and silent until the carriage and riders were out of sight.

"So your father is dead," she said.

Without another word, she stripped the ornaments from my limbs — the gold bracelets, the strings of lapis lazuli.

"You are no longer a princess."

I reach up my hand to touch the jagged frill of hair floating around my suddenly weightless head. My long black braid — my future husband's bounty — is gone, along with my silk sari and slippers. She leaves me my dagger though, tied to my left calf with strips of brown leather. It is a sign of my status: decorative, useless really. Soteli Ma smirks when she sees it, when the last of the unwrapped sari falls to the ground.

"What's your name?" she asks. As if she doesn't know.

"Rania Shah Sultan Begum," I answer.

Soteli Ma tosses my braid on the cooking fire and gathers the silk in her arms.

"That's a name for a princess," she says. "Your name is Chakoo." Little blade.

It is hard to picture my father in this rude wooden hovel, the skirt of his silk kurta spread across the coarse jute bed. He left nothing of himself here — no Tabrizi carpet, no silver paan-daan. No child. I am glad. My loathing can be absolute.

Soteli Ma locks me in the cellar again. I no longer cringe from the damp, earthen roots stretching like fingers from the ceiling, the skittering of stick legs fleeing my bare feet. The first time she shut me in, I pounded on the wooden door and cried for light — a candle, an oil lamp. Soteli Ma stuffed rags under the door, denying me even a sliver of sun.

"Get used to the dark," she said.

There is nothing to sit on but maggoty soil. I stand. I can stand for hours now, without moving, without making a sound. In my mind, I catalog the crimes of Soteli Ma and devise punishment.

I look foul. I smell foul. If the nobles of the court could see me now, they would not recognize me. My corner of the hut is bare, bereft of decoration or soft surfaces. Straw mat. Homespun kurta. And a mirror — for no matter how tightly I hold to my former life, Soteli Ma finds countless ways to remind me that it is gone.

Soteli Ma has a larder full of food — root vegetables, herbs, grains, dried beans — but I am not allowed to eat it. Soteli Ma points me to the woods and tells me I can eat what I can forage. I vomit for days after eating berries from a flowering bush and suffer two nights of visions after a meal of spotted toadstools. I am careful now. I know what to gather and what to avoid.

In the early days, I would dream of Eid-day feasts: lamb with almonds, pheasant on the bone, honeyed milk with pistachios. In my hunger, I would chew tree bark until my lips were black. I cried the first time I killed a rabbit — as much for myself as for the poor creature that touched its nose to my hand as if I really were a princess: someone who stands apart from the business of survival.

Now I trap and kill game without thought or ceremony. I'm sure this pleases Soteli Ma, for she welcomes my degradation.

I am running beside a stream at the tree line. My bare feet step lightly on the moss-covered path, untroubled by the press of thorns or pebbles. I am fast. I am lighter than the leaf of a neem tree. It is the only time, since coming to Soteli Ma's, that I am happy.

Of course we played games in the palace gardens. We battled with kites, danced with our cousins, and spied on our elders.

But I had never run like this before.

The first time was less than a fortnight after my arrival. Though I harbored no illusions that Soteli Ma looked on me as a daughter, I never believed she wished me dead — until the day I sneaked a vial of lavender oil from the larder and washed two weeks of dirt, stench and pitch from my aching body in the nearby stream. When I returned to the hut, Soteli Ma stared at me, her eyes dark.

"You stupid girl," she said, between clenched teeth. I backed out of the hut, confused and afraid. When she followed, instinct took over, and I ran. Soteli Ma chased after me.

"You're right to run, Chakoo," she shouted. "You better hope that I don't catch you."

I ran until my feet bled — until my legs gave way and I collapsed in the billowing dirt. Soteli Ma looked down at me with grim satisfaction, and from then on, such has been my punishment for any infraction: I run, and Soteli Ma gives chase.

I take a secret pleasure in my growing speed and stamina, the feeling that I can run forever, that I can leave everything behind. I keep this secret to myself, lest Soteli Ma discover it and contrive to take it away from me.

In the early days, I expected my late father's retinue to return and bring me back to the palace. I listened for horses and riders, certain that I didn't belong in this place, that I hadn't been abandoned by the ones I loved. I was entirely cut off from external events. Soteli Ma went to market every week without me, and any news she received of the court or the wider world, she refused to share.

I knew nothing of the state of the kingdom — who lived, who died, who held the throne. I longed for news of the growing threat that the court sages had prophesied. Rakshasa, deos — whatever their name, they were evil, with evil purpose. There would be no placating them, no reasoning with them. War was coming. My father had not believed it. And now he was dead.

"How do you stop a rakshasa?" I ask.

We gather sticks in the forest, and I voice my thoughts aloud.

Soteli Ma rarely speaks, so it is always a surprise when she does. She drops her bundle on the ground, retrieving one stick in her hand. She points at a neem tree on the far side of a clearing.

"Do you see that knot on the trunk?"

I squint and nod. Soteli Ma draws back her arm and hurls the stick at the tree; it bounces off the knot with a clack.

"Now you," she says.

We throw sticks at the neem tree for hours. By nightfall, I am hitting the knot seven times out of ten. Flushed with satisfaction, I smile at Soteli Ma without thinking. Her expression darkens, and I find myself in the cellar again. It is some time before I realize that she hadn't answered my question.

Soteli Ma's hut truly is at the edge of the kingdom — far from civilization, far, even, from roads that could take us to civilization. Passersby are rare — so much so that when a band of troubadours passes in front of the hut, I mistake their chatter for birdsong.

I am too excited to see them to feel ashamed of my ragged appearance. Six months ago, these men would have sung and danced for me in the palace hall. They would have strewn petals at my feet and called me Light-of-the-World. Now we drink from the same tin cup at Soteli Ma's cooking fire. In their eyes, I am no different from her.

Soteli Ma bids the travelers welcome, but I can tell she is not happy. I beg for news of the court and hear, at last, of the rise of the rakshasas. Sightings are now a daily occurrence. Threats issue from the mouths of the possessed, warning of the coming destruction. What we once viewed as folklore has become strategy. Sages read the story of Rustam and the Demon from the Shah-nama in the palace library, gleaning what facts they can. Every performance, every recitation of the story of Rama and Ravana is analyzed as military intelligence. The people pray to God to send them an army of fire. The winter crops founder in the fields. And still the djinns have not returned.

"There are signs," the leader says, as the travelers rise to leave. "They say you can always tell a deo by its backwards feet; its fiery eyes and lolling tongue."

I rise with them. For a moment, I consider following. I could tell them who I am — tell them of my torment at the hands of my stepmother — a stranger, who wed my father for no reason I can figure, a witch who cares for nothing so much as ridding me of every last trace of delicacy and nobility I possess.

Soteli Ma watches the troubadours as they crest the hill. "They are fools," she says.

"At least we know what to watch for — backwards feet, fiery eyes."

Soteli Ma grabs my arm and looks me right in the eye. "You'll see what they want you to see. A cousin. A lover. Your heart's desire. They kill as easily by trickery as by might."

I stare at Soteli Ma, dumbstruck, as she retrieves the tin cup from the ground. It may be the longest conversation we have ever had. And it is the only time she has ever touched me without violence.

With the failure of the Rabi harvest, Soteli Ma no longer goes to market. Sometimes she joins me in foraging, digging up wild tubers, shooting fat quails with a makeshift slingshot.

But today I am alone in the woods. I am collecting beechnuts high in the canopy of a tree when the sky goes dark. Deep black. Not like dusk, or the gradual covering of the sun by another heavenly body. It is immediate, like canvas thrown over my head. Like the cellar door slamming shut.

I quiet my breath. I listen. The birds have gone silent. All life in the forest has gone silent, uncertain, waiting.

I look skyward; there are no stars, no moon. This is no ordinary night. A singular thought comes into my mind: Soteli Ma will know what to do.

I grab hold of the branch I am perched on, and stretch a foot down to the tree limb below. I climb down branch after branch. Insects dash out from under my feet, in that preternatural way they have of knowing without seeing. I am struck by how like them I have become.

When I reach the ground, it is familiar. My feet follow the path, silent, deliberate. The stream babbles to the west of me. I reach a hillock and head east, crossing the tree line. The hut can be no more than 500 feet away, but I cannot see it. Soteli Ma has lit neither candle nor oil lamp. I can smell the smoke from our cooking fire, but the flames have been snuffed out.

I walk in the direction of the hut, my hand outstretched. The door opens with a swoosh and Soteli Ma pulls me inside.

"What's happening?" I ask.

"They have cast their nets across the sky," she says.

I open my mouth to speak, but she places a finger on my lips. She is pushing me down to the cellar. To my surprise, she follows. I can hear her scooping handfuls of soil from the rancid ground. She rubs the slime on my arms, legs, my face and hair, then goes still.

I quiet my breath. Close my eyes, my mouth. I wait.

Something is coming. A disturbance in the stale air, taking shape. It presses against me. Sniffs.

I quiet the beat of my heart.

A tongue fat as entrails drags over my face. I don't flinch. I can stand like this for hours if I have to.

When the creature leaves, I can feel it — a change in the pressure, like an indrawn breath — like a lid pried open. I follow Soteli Ma out of the cellar.

"We are leaving," she says.

The hills in the distance are burning. It gives off a sliver of light, a false dawn. We set off into the forest, running. It is another first: I am the one in pursuit.

I follow the sound of Soteli Ma's footsteps on the pine-needled path. A fugitive hope steals into my heart as I run. I have faith in the sureness of my feet.

After several hours, we stop. In mute agreement, we gather tree nuts, wild carrots. We eat. I am bursting with questions. Emboldened by the run, I turn to Soteli Ma.

"Why did you marry my father?" I ask. "Did you love him?"

Soteli Ma stops chewing.

"No," she says.

"Then why?"

She is quiet for a long time.

"It was in payment of a debt," she says.

We settle onto a bed of ferns and sleep. I dream of my lady mother. She is walking through the chambers of the palace, closing and locking the door of each room as she goes. The Women's Quarters. Bath. The Hall of Private Attendance. She pulls the carpets off the walls of the Grand Pavilion. In the courtyard, the water in the fountain sputters and drops. She turns and waves to me. The palace is getting smaller and smaller. I can see the gardens. The royal menagerie. The hunting grounds. The tenant farms. And still, the tiny hand of my lady mother, waving — as if I am the one who is leaving, not her.

The Night is unrelenting. Without the sun, we can no longer reckon the passing of time. I do not know how many weeks we spend wandering, like ruminants, living off the land. I eat only plants and insects, for Soteli Ma refuses to build a fire, and I cannot stomach raw game. We keep our distance from any human settlement. Fires blaze on the horizon. We wait.

In these weeks, Soteli Ma and I achieve a kind of unaccustomed truce. Not a rapprochement — more like the efficiency of common purpose. It is a strange time. If not for the darkness and the faint smell of smoke from the fires in the distance, I could almost believe we were at peace.

I have just eaten a ripe guava — a rare treat after endless meals of bland roots and bitter tree nuts. I allow myself a moment of pleasure, savoring the tart flesh, the gritty texture.

Soteli Ma and I crest a small hill when the smell of smoke and burnt meat assails us. I climb a fig tree and look out over the countryside.

It is a village, smoldering. From the treetops, it looks deserted. The only movement I can see is the flicker of flames, the only sound the faint crackle of fire as it feeds.

I stare at the scene, unblinking. Suddenly I am on the ground, racing past the tree line, toward the flames. I expect Soteli Ma to stop me, but she does not. She stands at the edge of the village. I wander among the bodies, breathless.

They must have gathered around the cooking fire, in twos and threes. Lovers. Families. Children on laps. Babies in arms. I am suddenly angry. Enraged by their stupidity.

"Why didn't they run? Why did they light a fire? Why did they make themselves such a target?"

I am sputtering, I'm so angry.


"If they had just — "


I look up at Soteli Ma, startled. Her expression is grim, but calm.


Excerpted from Stepmothers and the Big Bad Wolf by Madeline Smoot. Copyright © 2014 Madeline Smoot. Excerpted by permission of CBAY Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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