Author’s Note: I lost my mother to breast cancer not all at once but in bits and pieces after a long and protracted battle over many years. This tale was inspired by the experience. It made my step-father angry at first, because he felt that I was demonizing him in the figure of the king. But really, the story has a larger scope than that. He is not the king any more than my mother was literally the queen. Fairy tales are less about individual people and more about concepts, figures, and archetypes. They do not show us a world that is real, but perhaps a world that should be. This is one reason I enjoy playing with the genre — the stories are universal rather than specific and they allow the exploration of profound and perhaps impossible ideas. However, the tale certainly holds an echo of what I witnessed my mother endure for nearly thirteen years, especially toward the end — so it may not be an easy thing to read.
The Tale of the Long-Suffering Queen
Once there was a glorious kingdom on the shores of a faraway sea. A tall and proud king ruled this majestic land, and his beloved lady ruled at his side.
The queen was a young and beautiful woman, and never a day passed that the king did not profess his undying love. He heaped upon her every kindness, giving her anything her heart desired. The queen herself asked only that he love her, and this made him more devoted to her still.
All the subjects far and wide respected this great lady, for she was kind and patient, very giving and very strong. And then something terrible occurred. The queen, beloved of king and people, grew sick and began to waste away. In spring, the bloom of her cheeks had faded, and by autumn, she could barely leave her bed.
The king was driven to distraction. He deeply loved his lady, and he could not imagine his life without her. He spent hours at her bedside, weeping and holding her hand, but the court physicians could do nothing to cure her illness. They could barely forestall her impending death.
When it was clear that their treatments had failed her, the king fired one and all. Then he sent word throughout the kingdom that anyone with healing skills should come to the palace at once. He offered a great reward to any who could halt the illness, and if she was restored, he promised greater treasurers still.
For months a stream of healers, surgeons, and physicians poured through the doors of the palace. Each was given the opportunity to treat her, but each and every one of them failed at their task. Whenever a new physician would see her, he would shake his head and sadly declare that nothing could be done.
The king, in a state of desperation, threatened to put them to the lash. Although they doubled and redoubled their efforts, the queen continued to fade.
Angry now, and more desperate, the king called for his soldiers. He ordered them to search the surrounding lands. Far and wide, he sent them looking for great healers, and they were to kidnap these, if necessary, and return them to the palace, under guard.
High up in the desolate hill country, the soldiers heard stories of an old and wise man. This wise man, it was said, was half magician, and he held the secret of an elixir that could keep even a dying person alive. This substance, extracted from the roots of plants that grew along the highland waste places, could not cure illness, but each time it was administered, it would prolong life another day. Their search was almost at an end.
Diligently, the soldiers scoured this foreign country, until they came upon the wise man in his cave. They asked the old hermit about the fabled elixir. He acknowledged that he knew its secret, but swore he would not administer it willingly to any, on pains of death. At this the soldiers smiled wickedly and, knowing well their duty, they struck the old man a resounding blow to the head. Senseless, they dragged him away. Then they gathered up all his various bottles, jars, and herb-chests and packed them, along with his unresisting body, upon their horses for the long ride home.
At the castle, the soldiers brought the wise man in chains before the king. The plight of the queen was explained to him. His two dark eyes, one partly shut still with a bruise, were fixed upon the haggard face of the wretched king. When at last he was asked if he knew the secret of the elixir, he gravely nodded his head.
“Then you will use this stuff,” the king said in a stern, quiet voice, “to cure my queen. And if you do not, my men will see to it that you suffer ten times the agony that has made my lady waste away.”
The old wise man regarded the king in silence for a while, trying to see the young and happy ruler through the care-worn mask that now etched his pallid face. He was certain that the lady lay beyond all mortal hope, but he wondered if there were hope yet for the king.
“My lord,” the wise man said gently, “this elixir cannot heal your lady. It should not be mistaken for a cure. Certainly, it can prolong her life, but the pain it brings is amazing and severe.”
“She will live?” the king said, a spark of hope in his haunted eyes.
“But she will suffer,” replied the wise man.
“Yet she will live,” insisted the king.
The wise man sighed heavily and tried once more, though he already knew it was in vain.
“I caution you king,” the old man said, “to consider some other course. The people of my land do not use this as a medicine at all, but in certain forms of torture reserved for men who have committed the most heinous of crimes. I can see that you still love her. By that love, I beg you, do not make me give this to your queen.”
“Do it, old man,” the king commanded. “Do it, or I shall have my soldiers torture you to death.”
The old man lowered his eyes and nodded his head. And to himself, he wept, for he was not brave enough to risk death and disobey.
And so the queen, who already had suffered, began a new exquisite torture, for the elixir was like fire, and each drop seared her aching throat. Every day, the wise man came and placed three drops upon her tongue. Every day, the soldiers bore him away, but through the door and down the hall, he could hear her ragged screams.
She shrieked with pain till her voice was hoarse, then she shrieked, voicelessly and without sound. She sweated, she vomited, she trembled, she grew pale. She could not eat, and yet she could not die.
The king, who would visit well after her treatment, felt it was a great success. Day after day, when there had seemed no hope, his queen yet lived. To be certain, she was so weakened by the treatment that she could but murmur and press his hand. But she was with him. She was, though barely, alive.
Once she managed to tell her king that she thought she would no longer be able to take the terrible, burning “cure”. With a trembling voice, he vowed to her that she would never see that day.
“If you are too weak, I will see that it is given you, even if it must be force-fed down your throat. You are too precious to me, darling,” he swore. “I will never let you die.”
At this, the queen wept bitterly, despairing at her fate. And he, in his delusion, felt she wept tears of relief.
Not long after, when the soldiers brought the old man in his chains, the queen weakly bid that they all leave. The soldiers, unwilling to disobey either king or queen, hesitated, unsure how to proceed.
“Leave my physician with me,” the queen whispered through the rags of her once-sweet voice. “I would talk with the man who cures me. Only await – the screaming – and then you can bear him away.”
The old man, who had been weeping, as he wept nightly and desperately prayed, saw something in the eye of the lady. The soldiers left and closed the door. The queen beckoned the old man near.
“Sir, I understand that my husband has threatened your very life,” she began weakly. “So I do not blame you for what you have put me through. He doesn’t understand that I was ripe for death months ago, and happy with my fate. I only fought the sickness for what my death would cost him. But now I am tired beyond measure, and he cannot see.”
“Hush, lady,” the old man soothed. “I have been a coward and a fool. In my own land, death is nothing to be feared. Through it we simply move from one state to the next. And yet I feared it,” he whispered, “and through that fear, I have cheated you, lady, of the dignity of your own death. I will no longer.”
He pulled two vials from his pocket. One she recognized, and its very sight made her stomach clench. The other, purest crystal, held a clear blue fluid that shimmered in the light.
“This one, well you know, dear lady, will painfully prolong your life.” He raised the second vial of crystal. “This one is sweet and a single taste brings easeful death. I leave them both for you.”
He set them gently on the stand beside her bed. He knew what would happen next. The queen grabbed for the crystal vial with a desperation that gave her strength. With a smile and a prayer, she took a long and longed-for sip. Just then there was a stir outside the door. The king burst through, his soldiers fast behind.
“What is going on here?” he demanded, and his eyes were wild.
The queen, her face suffused with an unearthly glow, serenely smiled.
“I love you, dear, but cannot stay. If you love me truly, let me go.”
She stretched one thin and pale hand his way. She sighed once. Her eyes slid closed. The king shrieked and pressed her hand. No pulse beat in her throat. He dashed the vial to the ground, then struck the wise man a vicious blow.
“Seize him!” he bellowed to the soldiers. “Bear him to the dungeons below!”
The soldiers crowded into the room, but even they stopped at the sight of the queen. Serene and lovely she had grown, and she wore a smile none had seen since her treatments had begun.
The wise man stared at the frenzied king. In a low and even voice, he said, “I submit gladly to your torture, sir, for I have committed a terrible crime. For months, out of fear, I have tortured your queen, prolonging her life against her will. I stripped her of her dignity; I gave her only pain; I robbed her of anything worth living for –“
“You killed her!” cried the king.
The soldiers seized the little man and with a voice that trembled still, knowing of things that were to come, he said, “That alone may redeem me.”