Once there was a neat and tidy kingdom, light years away from here, but very similar – where potatoes fell from the trees like blossom and white apples grew in the depths of the earth. At the heart of the kingdom was a city decked with flowers with neatly trimmed lawns and undignified hovels side by side. And at the heart of the city was a castle, beautifully designed and polished every morning by hundreds of carefully-trained servants.
In the daytime, the castle shone in the sunlight; in the night its pointed towers cast long shadows through the town. The king and queen were powerful and known throughout the world for their spectacular ceremonies, their carefully planned receptions and intricately detailed foreign policies. Nothing was left to chance and the few things that simply had to be – life being what it is – were covered by hefty insurance, paid for with an extra tax on the countryside. Their twelve children were well-known too: six princes and six princesses, handsome and beautiful.
One day, to her astonishment, the queen became pregnant again. She and her husband had planned to have exactly twelve children and then stop. In a rage, she summoned her doctors to demand an explanation for what had happened. They seemed irritatingly unwilling to provide one, but the queen’s fury was nothing to the king’s. “How dare you!” yelled the king, as soon as they were alone. “I was very careful to specify exactly the number of children we should have and you seem intent on flying in the face of my wishes.”
“I assure you,” said the queen. “I am entirely blameless in this. I simply follow your instructions from moment to moment. This is clearly your miscalculation.” And she stormed off and locked herself into the West Wing for nine months.
It was winter before the door to her bed chamber opened again, and the snow was lying flat across the city, white under the moonlight, before it was brushed away in the morning by palace servants. After nine months, the palace women had barely managed to calm the queen at all. She stood at the door and shouted to her husband.
“Now what?” she screamed. Her voice and the faint sound of a new baby crying mingled in the stone corridors, making the suits of armour quiver in the Great Hall. “You deal with the problem. I’m going abroad to rest!” She left the baby behind, red-faced, frightened and alone with the women of her chamber. The Lord Chamberlain came and stared – from a safe distance – and went away again, scratching his head. So did the Chancellor and the cardinals of the court. Finally the king arrived, and stared into the room with a face like thunder. “It’s no good,” he said, with exasperation. “I will not have thirteen children. She’ll have to go. Put her outside.”
The palace staff nodded their heads gravely. Disagreement was untidy and they shared the king’s conviction that twelve princes and princesses were quite enough – as, indeed, they shared all the king’s convictions. There were the national finances to consider, the civil list, the dowries, the complications. The king was right, even if it was snowing.
It was left to the nurse to gather up the tiny princess, wrap her in a sheepskin and leave her outside the castle walls. With tears streaming down her face, because she knew she had to obey, she carried the princess down the long stone passages, past the bacon sizzling on the spit, past the armour and tapestries and the dozing sentries, down the drawbridge and into the streets. Fresh snow was lying heavy on the ground and a sharp icy wind cut into the nurse’s face as she clutched the princess to her breast. “If I leave her here, she’ll be dead in an hour,” she said to herself. She knew no-one outside the palace, and when she approached likely looking women with the hope of fostering the child, they took one fearful glance at the bundle in its rich sheepskin, gathered their dirty rags about their faces and ran. Exhausted and frightened, the nurse remembered a small cleft in the battlements, away from the cold wind, she had seen decades before when she first arrived at the castle. She clambered up over the tufts of grass, rubble and discarded food and pushed past the bracken.
It was dry and, yes, it was almost warm. With her heart beating in her throat, she put the princess down gently, fed her a final bottle of milk, and with many backward glances, and tears rolling down her cheeks, she climbed back across the bridge, under the portcullis and into the palace. She was back an hour later, and as the sky darkened and the snow whistled outside, she sat in the small hole in the walls, and lulled the abandoned princess to sleep – the words of her lullaby mingling with the tearing wind.
She returned in the morning, and again and again, feeding her, soothing her when she could. Then a few days later, disaster struck. The nurse had caught a chill in her winter wanderings, and she fainted over breakfast. She was carried to bed and, for three days, she lay delirious in a fever. When she came to it was early evening and a few minutes went by before she suddenly remembered the child. In terror she dressed, ignoring the horrified remonstrations of her fellow servants and dashed down to the cleft in the walls which she had come to know so well. There could be no chance, could there – she asked herself as she ran – that the little princess could have survived even one day and one night in the snow without food? A terrible curse seemed to hover over her head.
But when her eyes adjusted to the dark, she could barely believe the sight. And yet, there was no doubt. Four eyes looked up at her, instead of two. The baby now lay next to the determined piercing eyes of a dark-haired vixen, a fox from the wintry streets, which had been driven by whatever impulse to take shelter and save the life of a fellow outcast. The nurse tiptoed away.
As the weeks passed and then months, she found it wasn’t just the vixen which fed the princess, but crows bringing grubs or hedgehogs being nettle leaves to supplement the milk and porridge and love which the old nurse slipped with her away from the palace. When any of their shapes blocked the light as they appeared in the princess’ hole in the wall, the baby’s face would brighten in recognition. And on very special days, they would leave behind one of the glowing white apples from deep in the ground.
In the years that followed, she learned to smile, to talk, to play with the ragged children around the slopes of the castle, to pick through the palace rubbish, to laugh and to cry. The nurse brought her the school books discarded by her older brothers and sisters. But the burden of living such an existence in the hinterland of society took its toll: there were moments when the nurse could see a shadow passing across the face of her protegé.
When she was old enough, the nurse began plotting to bring her safely back into the palace as one of the servants. When the Chamberlain of the Household had finally agreed to hiring another scullery maid, she leapt for joy and dashed to where she knew the princess would be. “At last! At last!” she shouted excitedly, clutching the princess to her large bosom, where once she had held her tight that first wintry night. “At last you can come and live warm and safe with me, and be clothed and never have an empty belly.”
But the princess looked sadly back at her in her torn and filthy clothes. “I cannot come,” she said. “For I am Little Outside-in-the-Snow, and I must stay where I belong.”
“But… But…,” said the nurse, her words bunching hopelessly in her throat. “But you can’t stay here. What will become of you? Just because you began here doesn’t mean you always have to be here.” But the princess was adamant and wouldn’t say another word. And in the years that followed, the nurse repeated her demand time and again. Offers of greater roles in the big house came and were sadly dismissed. Distant relatives of the nurse offered her places to live. The shoemaker down the rutted track in the town even proposed to her. But she simply smiled quietly, looked them in the eyes, brushing her golden hair away from her face and said: “I am Little Outside-in-the-Snow and I must stay where I belong.”
But great events were beginning to unfold in the castle above. A prince from a neighbouring kingdom, of ineffable breeding, enormous wealth and astonishing learning had agreed to visit the palace and marry the princess of his choice. His one flaw was a fleeting indecision: he had managed to survive for four decades without choosing a wife.
“And he’s so handsome too,” whispered the serving girls and the princesses separately as he leapt down from his horse in the courtyard, his boots rattling on the cobbles. “He is a little unkempt, though,” said the king. “He never seems to comb his hair.”
“Well, I don’t like this princess-of-his-choice business at all,” complained the queen. “It’s most untidy. We should have decided for him.”
Needless to say, the official reception was a neat, sumptuous affair, planned down to the last detail. Not a feather on the plumes of the guards blew out of place. Not a sash clashed on the waists of the princesses. The prince was delightfully polite, kissing the hand of each princess in turn – “So unhygienic,” said the queen in an undertone. With each one in turn he talked happily, he rode with each in the deer park and caressed each one lightly on the forearm. But at the end of the week, his expression had become fixed and his demeanour haggard.
“They are absolutely lovely,” he told the king at the end of the week. “They do you credit. But I haven’t been completely open with you.” The prince told him that a wise man, much consulted in his own family, had urged him to marry one of the princesses specifically. He had conjured a picture of her, wild and beautiful, in the kind of clothes princesses rarely wear – dowdy, smelly even – but in her eyes shone a light and excitement and wonder and care and power which sent a shiver from the top of his coronet to the tips of his jewelled shoes.
“That fact is,” said the prince uncomfortably, “none of your daughters seem to be the one. I don’t want to be difficult, but – are you sure you have no other female children, who may have slipped your mind in the excitement?”
“Extraordinary idea!” said the king, though a strange doubt had crept into his mind, which he instantly suppressed. “We don’t behave like that in this country.”
Alone again in his bed chamber, the prince was confused and disillusioned, doubting his own judgement, fearful of returning home without the longer-for alliance of love stoked and power broked. Then there was a muffled knock at the door. It was the old nurse. She had overheard his audience with the king and knew immediately what she must do. Bowing slightly, she put her finger to her lips and – in the most servile way she could think of – motioned the prince to follow. In stockinged feet, they crept out of the palace and into the warm evening air. The children were playing and the last crickets were buzzing in the distance.
When he reached the cleft in the walls and saw the forgotten princess, he was overjoyed. Here was the wild royal beauty he had travelled for so long to find. In his excitement he kissed the old nurse and held out his hands. Nobody spoke. Then the princess drew herself up, threw off a few of her dirty rags and looked right up into his face, imperiously as if he was his equal, and – her eyes blazing – gently took his hands. The prince visited the cleft in the walls again the next day, and again the day after and then through the night they wandered along the moat, glinting in the starlight, hand in hand.
“You are my princess,” he told her as the dawn seeped into the sky. “Come back to the palace, claim your birthright and let me marry you, cover you with gold and make you my queen. Let me love you until you are old and wise and wizened and beyond. Let me stroke your hair in the mornings and bathe you in the evenings. Let me kiss your eyes, and tend you in your dark hours of confinement and lift you up in front of the world. Let me draw you into my dreams.”
“But alas, I cannot,” said the princess sadly. “For I am Little Outside-in-the-Snow, and I must stay where I belong.”
The prince was aghast. “Snow?” he said. “What snow? And I know exactly where you belong.” But once again, the princess was adamant. He cajoled her through the night, pleaded through the following day – while the royal family in the castle above made anxious enquiries about his whereabouts – but it was no use. He returned to his room with its fine wall-hangings and fire in the grate and collapsed onto his bed in despair. He changed his clothes and, seeing nobody, left immediately for his arduous journey home.
“You cannot change where she belongs,” said the old wizard months later. “You cannot change where anybody belongs. You have to change something else.” He stroked his beard. “And if you change something else, you have to change everything. You have to pluck one of the white apples of the moon.”
“What do you mean?” asked the prince nervously. But he loved the princess, so if he had to pluck an apple to win her, no matter how deep it was buried, then that was what he would do.
“Go down the cave at the foot of the Great Mountain,” said the wizard. “And when the light fades, so they say, you will meet an old man who will guide you. But beware, prince! If you are whole-hearted in your desire; if you have no doubts in your mind about your quest, then you will win through. If not then you will be torn into little pieces.”
“This apple-plucking business,” asked the prince quietly. “How many have succeeded before me?”
“None at all,” said the wizard, sweeping his robes behind him.
The prince gulped and examined his mind, fleetingly at first and then in great detail. He wandered the royal potato trees in the days that followed, with the sun on his face and potatoes in his hand and – sure enough – whenever his mind wandered, he had doubts. Maybe some even more wonderful princess would emerge later. Why should he go through this demeaning ordeal for an outcast in rags? If he remained single, he could have whichever women he desired. But still the eyes of the princess burned inside his head and he knew that, whatever risks lay ahead, he would have to try. He stayed awake that night in vigil before setting out. As the light arrived, he took one last look around his bedroom – his home since boyhood – etching the princess on his mind, saying goodbye to favourite hairbrushes, nick-nacks and suits. Then he strode out to meet his fate deep in the earth.
The cave was easy to find. And sure enough, as the light disappeared, an old man in a long white robe became suddenly visible. He greeted the prince by name. Bones were littered disconcertingly at his feet. For what seemed like weeks, lit only by a series of blazing torches, the prince followed the old man deep into the earth. They passed through narrow paths in the rock, through vast caverns as big as the Great Hall in his father’s palace, stalactites like tall spindly mountains, rock waterfalls like the raging ocean, strange creatures with great teeth and claws sleeping in their lairs, men without eyes eating worms in the dust. Yet every step of the way, he thought of her. Every pace brought some new facet of her, some new wisp of her hair remembered, before his mind.
“I must leave you here,” said his guide at the entrance to the blackest cave. “We are nearly at the centre of the world. If you are pure in what you seek, you will win. If not, I fear you will never see the day again. Go through this tunnel and you will see a sword and a gnarled old tree, and the white apples of the moon growing there. Use the sword to pluck an apple – just one, mind – and you will win through, achieve your dream and turn the whole world inside out.”
The prince was too frightened to speak, but he knew that any doubts he had would threaten his whole mission if he allowed them the space to breathe. So thinking of the Princess Outside-in-the-Snow, he plunged ahead. A hundred yards of pitch blackness, and the corridor ended, and his flailing hands came up against cold rock. He felt around to his right, then his left, and – yes! – there was the pummel of a sword. He lifted it and swept it through the air, and immediately a dull white light filled the cavern, and to his horror, he could see lying about him, the bones and armour of the heroes who had come before him and failed.
The rock was almost blue. It had red lines, like veins, across it and seemed to pulsate, like the beating heart of the world. It was covered in scars from the failed blows of forgotten adventurers. It beat with implacable cruelty. And growing out of it was the tree, as old as time itself. A tree wiser and deeper than any he had imagined, and hanging from its branches, glowing in what seemed like moonlight, were the apples – strange and forbidden and throbbing with light like the moon on a winter’s night.
The prince raised the sword, then lost his nerve for a second. Was his heart pure? He raised it again, and for a second time he doubted himself. His 40 years slipped quickly through his mind: every cruelty of his own, every harsh word, every betrayal crowed into his ear. Then finally the pure sharp picture of the Little Princess Outside-in-the-Snow, her dignity and beauty and how much he loved her, and he raised the sword a third time. The cave seemed to vibrate in expectation. And, holding his hand underneath the nearest apple, he swung the sword round to separate it from the branch.
There was dead silence for a moment as the apple fell into his hand, then in the very distance, the prince could hear the sound of cries of loss, of cutlery and plates collapsing on the floor, of cows leaping over fences, of lovers succumbing after years of resistance, of books falling from shelves – all opening as they fell at pages of great significance which nobody had ever read – of portraits coming to life, of weapons melting in the hands of warriors. Then there was another sound, not heard through the ear, of growing. Of daffodils opening, of snow melting, of eggs cracking open, of the long forgotten seeds buried with the pharaohs beginning to burst into life.
With his guide, as solemn as before, he made his way out of the long cavern, back to the foot of the Great Mountain and he was hit by the tangy whiff of spring.
For two weeks he rode, through upturned valleys and hills overthrown, to the country of the princess, and every hour he went by, he checked the glowing apple which he carried next to his heart. By the time he arrived, unkempt and smelling, barely able to see between his aching eyelids, he could see that it had changed enormously. People seemed disorientated, happy-looking cows wandered in the streets, furniture was piled in front gardens while flowers bloomed in the carpets through the open windows. But as he approached the castle he woke completely, and stopped still in astonishment. The chandeliers, wallpaper and weapons seemed attached to the outside walls. Baths hung from the sides. Portraits glinted in the sunshine. Suits of empty armour and the antlers of long-dead stags protruded into the town.
He walked up the drawbridge, which now seemed to be lifting up inside the castle itself. There was no sign of the guards – still less the royal family – and the walls inside the castle were weatherbeaten and rough, and the sunlight shone in through the roof. Some cats were playing where the throne room had stood. A vixen and her cubs preened themselves in pride of place, as if they owned the palace themselves. The potato trees had disappeared and in their place stretched new orchards down the corridors and in the bedrooms. And there in the very heart of the inverted castle, dressed in fine clothes, with the light glinting in her hair and the swallows circling her head like a crown, was the princess – smiling with delight.
She leapt up when she saw him and he ran towards her, pulling off his leather gloves as he ran and holding out the white apple. “Well,” he said, as he took her in her arms. “If it isn’t Little Princess Inside-in-the Snow.”