Rain Brown and the Seven Harpies

A Slightly Feminist Fairytale by Bisha K. Ali
Illustrated by Sam Golin

nce upon a time, in the height of summer, when the Sun baked the ground into unyielding hardness and the people whispered in the dark for water, a Queen sat in her palace war rooms, poring over defence tactics with her husband, The King. As they moved armies and sacrificed lands and troubled their hearts over promises of protection, the Queen ached for another mind to join them, full of ideas and compassion and intuitive intelligence. “Oh, that I could have a child full of joy and wit, to grow into a leader guided by kindness and tolerance!”

Soon after, as clouds began to form and break and drench the ground, the Queen’s wish came true when she bore a baby girl. The rain thundered down that day and churned the soil into mud and from this their little heir gained her namesake – Rain Brown. Sadly, the Queen’s hopes to see her daughter grow into a leader would not be realised, for she died soon after Rain was born. Not even the strongest magic could revive her. The mud was thick and squelched underfoot when they lowered the Queen into it, and the kingdom came out to cry in the rain.

A few years later, The King remarried, as Kings are wont to do. His new wife was quick and smart like the late Queen, but possessed none of her empathy. She was a fighter, and their strategies turned from defence to offence, and The King learned from his new wife not to trouble his heart with broken promises of protection. The new Queen’s greatest strength was her aggression and power, but her greatest flaw was her pride.

The Queen

After a hard day of dealing with underlings and tactics, ordering generals and ploughing through tomes upon tomes of military tactics, the Queen retired to her room to meditate. She looked into her mirror, to find the answers within herself, and asked: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the cleverest of them all?”

Bubbling up from her heart came the reply: “The Queen is the cleverest of the day.” And she was happy, for she knew that the truest of truths come from the quiet voice within ourselves.

Little Rain Brown, however, was growing up. She excelled in mathematics and the natural sciences, had a curious mind and devoured history books and great literature. Her humour and wit were growing, and an understanding of human nature and the plight of others seemed to come naturally to her. When the Queen now looked into the mirror and asked: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the cleverest of them all?” it replied:

“The Queen was the cleverest of them all, but little Rain Brown will be the cleverest soon, they say.”

This answer stuck in the Queen’s throat like hot bile, and pride flushed her face red. If the Queen had stopped to look into herself, she would have seen her own folly and childishness, but that didn’t stop her from giving in to her pride. Whenever the Queen saw Rain Brown, the Queen was reminded of her shame. She began to restrict her lessons and her access to books and to people who could help her grow. Every time she saw Rain Brown reading or working through numbers or paper, or listening in the war rooms, the Queen barked at her and sent her out. She set about smothering her with dressmakers and needlework, classes in pottery and painting. To the Queen’s frustration, Rain Brown took to these lessons too, creating beautiful, vulnerable works and inspiring the praise of the artists who came to work with her.

When the greatest storytellers in all the land came to the palace and asked to meet Princess Rain Brown and spend time in her company instead of with the Queen, she felt a heavy stab in her heart and could contain herself no more. The Queen stopped eating and sleeping and raged at her reflection, who told her night after night that Rain Brown was the cleverest in all the land.

Her envy reached a peak and with jealousy pumping through her one evening she slipped away into the palace grounds, sought out a Huntsman and gave him orders to “Take the princess into the woods and out of my sight. You must kill her and bring me back her tongue and her brain as proof of your deed.”

The Huntsman did as his Queen commanded, for she was notoriously forceful and had all the power that a man could dream of. As he bundled Rain into his cart and drove out of the township, she listened attentively as he told her of his life as a huntsman and a merchant. He struggled to sell his goods for he had spent most of his life hunting with his father and brother and was no great businessman. It is hard to mix craft with business, he opined.

Rain Brown thought hard about his struggles and offered insights from her reading, though could offer no more than textbook knowledge and had no experience of her own. But she was the first to listen to the Huntsman and understand his plight since he had begun hunting alone after his father had passed and his brother had moved to another town in the Kingdom.

Once they reached the woods, Rain Brown began to reason with the Huntsman. “Dear friend, I hope you will reciprocate a listening ear now that we have come to this moment. I offer you an alternative to help preserve both your humanity and my very existence. Let me run into the forest and live my life in isolation – I will never return to the palace under these circumstances. You can take back the tongue and brain of a boar, earn good favour with The Queen (and indeed the queen’s purse) and also earn good favour with your own principles. I know it is not your heart’s desire to kill me on the whim of a jealous ruler. What say you, Huntsman?”

The Huntsman agreed. He released Rain Brown, embraced her and left her with his small shearing knife, before waiting until dawn to hunt a boar to retrieve proof to deliver to the Queen.

As clever and resourceful as Rain Brown was, she now found herself alone in the deep wilds of a vast forest, in slippers and a gown and wielding a blunt knife. The closest she had come to a forest was riding through the palace grounds or picking apples in the orchards. Here the vines hung low, the air was thick with moss and animals scurried between the trees underfoot and overhead.

While she did her best to remain calm, walking aimlessly in endless darkness will bring the hardiest of us to heartache and frustration. Rain Brown was no different. As she tripped through the woods, hungry, tears burst forward while negative thoughts and desperation wrapped themselves around her mind. Her eyes had adjusted to the gloom of the forest and as she walked past a towering great tree she had marked with her knife already, a flicker in the distance stopped her heart. Between the leaves and branches and sadness she spied what she believed was a cottage. And she followed.

RainBrownFindsTheCottage

She came upon a little house, small and perfect and emanating heat. The door was unlocked and while etiquette told her to wait outside patiently, her desperation pushed her inside. The cottage was small but clearly loved. The walls were covered in bookshelves and seven armchairs of different sizes were in a circle around a small fire. Half-drunk teacups and open novels dotted the room. Rain Brown looked into the back room and saw seven beds, all different sizes too. She found a bed that looked about right for her and managed to kick off her muddy slippers before collapsing into a deep sleep.

When darkest night had fallen, the owners of the house came home – seven Harpies – who campaigned in the community in the day and went to equal rights for Harpies meetings in the evenings. They lit some lamps and settled into their readings as two prepared a meal, then they noticed small things out of place. Teacups washed up that shouldn’t be. Bookmarks moved. Armchair pillows slightly awry. Fearing for their safety, they banded together and decided to enter the bedroom bearing kitchen utensils. They burst in on a snoring Rain Brown and laughed at their collective hysteria.

She looked harmless, but she had nonetheless invaded their space and had displayed no respect for their boundaries, so when she awoke and they questioned her, it was not without reservation.

When Rain Brown awoke to a house full of Harpies, her heart skipped. She had read about them and heard about their fight in the capital of the Kingdom to secure equality between magical creatures and humans, but she had never met a Harpy in the flesh. And now she was meeting seven. Before they began their questioning, they gave Rain a huge bowl of hot soup and slice after slice of thick, warm bread. Between mouthfuls, Rain Brown began her story. She painted the Queen as more innocent than she should have – but the Harpies saw through her humility and tutted and shook their heads at their Ruler’s audacity.
When Rain Brown finished her tale, and after a few hours talking into the night and exchanging stories, the Harpies conferred and gave her an offer.

MagicProtest

“Will you join our campaign, share in running our household, and help us with administrative duties? We can only do so much from the front line. And with your knowledge of human bureaucracy and palace thought-processes, you could be a real ally for our cause.”

“I will use all that I have learnt to help you move towards equality. Thank you for your kindness,”
said Rain Brown. She had never felt so deeply the injustice of another creature’s struggle, and in that moment she vowed to put her knowledge to use to help these kind Harpies.

Since Rain Brown could not return to town, the Harpies would leave her to read books and write letters and draft proposals and policy changes in the day, while they went to collect signatures and gain support. Rain Brown devoured the books on the shelves and busied herself with understanding their cause, but loneliness often filled her heart.

The Harpies warned her not to open the door to strangers. They said “Be wary of your stepmother, who has spies across the Kingdom and in every campaigning group in the land. Do not let any non-magical creatures into the cottage.” As lonely as she was, Rain Brown knew there was more at stake than just her life.

Back in the palace, The Queen in a fit of rage and instability, had her chefs prepare the brain and tongue of her stepdaughter into a sandwich, and having eaten it, believed she was now above all in the Kingdom, the most clever woman in the known world. She had not faced her mirror since she had sent the Huntsman on his grim quest, but now, some time later, she came across it, and looked into her reflection to ask her usual question:

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the cleverest of them all?”

And a voice, from both within and without her, replied:

“The Queen was the cleverest yesterday; Rain Brown is the cleverest today, they say. The Harpies protect her from thy sway. Deep in the forest, far, far away.”

She was surprised, but knew this to be the truth. The Huntsman seemed a weak type of man. And as they say – if you want something done right, do it yourself. With that, the Queen raided the palace library, went to the market to pick up a ragged cloak, some spells and a disguise for her face before she took a horse from the stables and rode into the woods to find the home of the infamous Seven Harpies.

She rode tirelessly through the forest and upon seeing the cottage wherein Rain Brown carried out her duties, she hopped down from her steed and meandered to the front door, stumbling along with a makeshift walking stick and using a heavy satchel full of books to hunch the arch of her back. She knocked on the door and called out “Books for sale today! Tales of foreign lands, of intellectual barbs and creatures from beyond the stars. Betrayal and love and learning all here in these books for sale!”

Rain Brown looked longingly out the window and opened it just a little to say “You must carry on into the woods kind lady, I cannot let you in, as much as your wares may tempt me.”

QueenTricksRain

“You needn’t let me in to be tempted by my wares, young lady. Why, I can pass you a book from here. Have you anything to trade?”

Rain Brown trusted her intuition. The woman looked weary and had a heavy bag of books, and Rain had read every novel in this cottage from front to back at least once. She longed for more to read and fill up her well of passion for knowledge. It would not be breaking the Harpies’ rules to trade a book for a book – through a window. She wouldn’t let the lady in, but she could trade with her.

“I can trade a book for a book. Or some fresh, blood red apples, to give you a little more out of the trade. I haven’t any currency with which you can profit, kind lady.”

Rain Brown hoped the old lady would take her up on the offer. The Queen smiled. It is easy to trap the trusting and good natured. She hobbled up to the window, and passed the Princess the book she had poisoned with the darkest of magics. For every page Rain Brown turned, she would fall deeper and deeper into sleep. The only way to awake her would be through true love’s kiss. And knowing Rain Brown, she was too young to have experienced such a love. The Queen knew this would end her.

“I’ll take an apple, too, if you wouldn’t mind. For the journey.” The Queen took Rain Brown’s last red apple, and departed back to the kingdom. When she returned home and gazed into her mirror to ask: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the cleverest of them all?” her heart jumped happily when it replied “The Queen is the cleverest of them all.”

RainBrownIsPoisoned

Evening fell, and the Harpies returned home to find Rain Brown on the ground, she was pallid and no breath came from her lips. Her eyes were shut and her skin was taut. Being magical creatures, they could sense the darkness on the book that lay beside her and kicked it away. The Harpies mourned the loss of their friend and prepared to bury her. They ordered magical craftsmen to build a glass case for her and there they laid their friend to rest. Engraved upon the case were her name and her parentage. They placed her upon a plinth in the wood and one of them stood watch by her every day. Word spread among the magical creatures and talking owls, gremlins, goblins, hoot birds and twittletongs came to pay their respects to their ally.

Many moons later, with their campaign at a halt under the tyranny of the now even more self-important Queen, a Prince from a foreign land of wind and ice came traveling through the wood. He came upon the Harpies’ home, and was not afraid to approach them directly to seek shelter and rest for the night, for in his land, magical creatures were equal to humans in every way.

As he settled in with the Harpies, he asked them what had happened to their missing member – for while there were eight armchairs and eight beds, there were only ever seven Harpies at home. They told him the tale of their friend Rain Brown. Of her courage, her intelligence, her kindness and her resilience and proclivity to forgive. Night after night they told him more of her character and he felt his heart begin to ache for Rain Brown. On his last day, they told him of the curse they believed she was under, on account of a dark, poisonous magic.

The Prince knew of this curse. His nursemaid had been a wizard, and he had told him many tales of old magic and its uses. He said
“From what the old tales tell me, this curse can be broken with true love’s kiss. I cannot say that I love Rain Brown. I can say that I love the Rain Brown you have painted for me – perhaps if you bring her to me, we can try to lift this curse.”

The Harpies had all but given up hope for their friend Rain Brown, and their first reaction was joy. Three of them flew out and brought the glass case back to the cottage. Rain lay perfectly still, just as they had found her on the day she had begun to read the cursed book.

As they pried open the case, the Prince was suddenly overcome with doubt. He asked the Harpies
“Is it right to assume that I can kiss her? Should I carry out such an act without her consent?”

With this question, the Harpies’ hearts sank. For they all knew that it was not right to kiss someone without their consent. They sat, then, for days – the Prince and the Harpies, locked in debate. To kiss her would be a violation. Not to kiss her would leave her in this state forever.

MoralDilemma

Days passed as they discussed this moral dilemma. It wasn’t until Pankhurst, the oldest of the Harpies, raised a question that the others began to re-think their despair.
“Forget the kiss – what if you do not have true love for Rain Brown? We are the ones who took her in, who gave her a home, who taught her, who spent time with her – should not we be the ones to deliver such a kiss?”

“I am not sure that I’ve heard of harpies kissing princesses to wake them up in the old tales,” quipped the Prince. But as he spoke, the Harpie named Rathbone, who had spent the most time with Rain – reading books, debating, drafting letters – stood up and kissed her forehead in frustration.

The Prince and the Harpies stood in silence as Rain Brown’s eyes began to open. Her throat dry, she asked: “Have you anything to eat?”

Some tales would end with Rain Brown marrying the Prince, usurping the wicked Queen and finally giving justice to magical creatures. That’s not how this fairytale ends.

Rain Brown was afraid to return to the city – the forces rallying against her were simply too strong – but over time she helped the magical creatures chip away and bring about change in the Kingdom. Revolution overthrew the monarchy and the kingdom suffered the teething problems of a young democracy – but they’re getting there.

Oh – and the Prince stuck around for a while – but he was never our main concern, was he?

2 thoughts on “Rain Brown and the Seven Harpies

  1. Pingback: Slightly Feminist Fairytales | Sam Golin Illustrations

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