Ursula Vernon, also known as Ursulav, has been the purveyor of the weirdly beautiful, and the beautifully weird, for over a decade now. Her artwork is impossible to categorize; if you were to start combining random words out of the dictionary you’d have a good chance of accidentally describing something she’s painted. Anthropomorphic saints? Plenty to choose from. Swamp landscape teacup? Got a beautiful one of those. Feral strawberry, cantaloupe sandals, and a biting pear? Yep, yes, and you’ve probably already seen that last one.
In 2008 Vernon started writing and illustrating her own children’s books, and she recently released several short stories written under the pen name T. Kingfisher. This couldn’t have been better news, because as much as I adore her art, what really drew me to her work were the descriptions she included with the art. They’re such a wonderful combination of the bizarre and the totally mundane. The short descriptions often led to longer slice-of-life stories, my three favorites being The Saints of San Axolotl, The Golem Girl, and the incomparable House of Red Fireflies. In Kingfisher’s most recent release she follows the same format she started with her short story collection Toad Words, taking familiar elements from fairy tales and turning them ever so slightly off kilter.
More than a children’s story, not quite an adaptation, The Seventh Bride tells the tale of a hapless miller’s daughter, dragged into a world of imprisoned brides and stolen gifts. It’s too much to ask of anyone, particularly someone who can’t even keep the big swan at the millpond from stealing her lunch every blessed day. But she’s got a hedgehog, so at least there’s that much going for her…
Unlike the mice, gremlins really were a problem. If you ground one into flour on accident, the bread had a tendency to explode in the oven, or bleed when you cut into it, or turn into a flock of starlings and tear around the cottage shrieking, and then people came around and had words with the miller, many of which had only four letters and involved hand gestures.
It’s that above description which really sets the tone for the story. The main character, Rhea, is just an ordinary miller’s daughter with a name that she suspects is just a little too grand for someone who’s main task is to to make sure the grain hoppers don’t get clogged, and to check for any dead mice falling into the grain. A boring life in a quiet village, except that Kingfisher has a habit of throwing in something magical, or supernatural, or just plain weird when you’re not expecting it. Like the red and violet hollyhocks around her family’s cottage which would occasionally turn plaid. Or the fact that turnips are fairly resistant to magic, potatoes have to be watched to make sure they don’t get into a mood, and eggplants? Boy, don’t even bother with eggplants, not worth the trouble.
All of the odd bits of magic are treated as being about as strange as a too-warm day in winter, and nothing happens that’s really worth commenting on. At least until the mysterious Lord Craven decides he wants a wife, and the wife he wants is the fifteen-year-old Rhea.
This is the kind of fairy-tale where the calamity that happens isn’t a punishment for something the main character did wrong, it’s just something that happens. Rhea didn’t steal vegetables from a witches garden, or refuse to share her lunch with a dwarf who ends up taking it personally. She didn’t even manage to have a wicked step-parent. Lord Craven makes his intentions known to Rhea’s parents very courteously, and of course Rhea can say no if doesn’t want to marry the strange gentleman she’s never met who’s trying to marry below his station for no particular reason at all. Never mind the fact that saying “no” to a Lord is an invitation to have all sorts of horrible things happen, like having her whole family being turned out of the home they’ve kept for generations. So of course Rhea says yes, and accepts Lord Craven’s invitation to visit his house. Alone. After dark. At the end of the mysterious white road that appears outside the village. Not even Rhea’s desperately hopeful parents can convince themselves this is normal, and there’s not a thing any of them can do about it.
It’s at this point that the story gets creepier, and occasionally adorable. Adorable because Rhea meets a friendly hedgehog along the way to Lord Craven’s house. Not a talking hedgehog of course, because that would be silly, but one that can speak volumes with a shrug or an irritated tapping with one forefoot. And creepier because Lord Craven has some very unsettling things going on in his house. There’s a nod to the fairy tale of Bluebeard and his wives here, only much worse, because Craven isn’t just collecting wives and punishing them for being nosy. He’s taking things from them. Much worse things, stranger and more complicated, than just eyes, or even lives. Imagine having something taken from you, something you couldn’t live without, and suddenly even death isn’t an option any more.
I suppose if you’re mad, you just carry on doing whatever seems best. Maybe the wheelwright’s son had a very good reason when he started putting trousers on the pig. Maybe if you’ve spent a week in a fairy mound, it is incredibly obvious that pigs need trousers.
Maybe I’m overthinking this.
Rhea isn’t the usual fairy tale hero. Remember, this is the girl who had trouble standing her own against bullying swans. What she has though is the determination to keep going even when the entire world seems to be telling her that she must have gone crazy several paces back, and she should just…you know…stop. Certainly she spends a lot of time fighting off tears, but who wouldn’t be upset when dealing with a cruel sorcerer, specters surrounding the house, patchwork golems guarding the fence, and that thing the hallway does outside the kitchen at midnight (and sometimes quarter after four in the afternoon). But she’s got the sense to realize when crying just won’t help. And when all else fails, she gets mad. She may be just a simple miller’s daughter, but she can tell when the Lord Craven is trying to talk to her in terms he thinks a peasant will understand when he doesn’t have the first clue how a peasant makes a living. And she can be downright furious that this sorcerer has all the power to trap her and his other wives in the house and make her play his horrible games and yet? He can’t even win without cheating. It’s outrageous and unfair, and she’s not going to let him intimidate her. Much.
The imagery in the story gets progressively stranger and stranger as Rhea gets closer to her wedding day and meets each of Craven’s wives in turn, with the last wife she meets being the strangest one of the lot (she doesn’t look anything like her name suggests). The story ends the way all great stories do, with a satisfying resolution and a lot of leftover questions about the world (or worlds) in which the story takes place. I’d love to learn a lot more about each of the wives and the fascinating places where they must have come from. Especially Rhea; as much as she thinks she wants to be a just a normal miller’s daughter, you’re left with the sense that there’s going to be a bit more going on with her life than that.