SNOW: I am Snow White.
The story wouldn’t be called “Snow White” if it was named properly. It’d be called Nick by-Basil, because that’s who it was really about. Not about me.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, I’ve never even heard of Nick by-Basil. How can “Snow White” be about him?
Just because someone is not called by name doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
I loved Nick by-Basil, and he loved me. And if that alone doesn’t make him part of the story, I don’t know what would.
NICK: I am Nick by-Basil.
I am the son of Basil by-Malley, who was the son of Malley by-Sky, who was the son of Sky by-Merlin in his turn. I am from a family of huntsmen, highwaymen, miners, royalty, and I was taught that if you wanted something, you worked for it until your hands bled and so did the other guy’s. I am the red-headed, left-handed seventh son of a seventh son and they say that when I was born, every woman in town screamed with my mother’s labor pains.
But all you need to know is this: I am a magician and I’m not to be trifled with.
SNOW: My stepmother’s name was Elliscia. I don’t know what kind of name that is, other than the ugly kind. I still remember when my father introduced her to me. We – me, the servants, the priests, my governess, and Nick by-Basil – were all gathered in the great sunny entrance hall of Swan-on-the-Water, my father’s nicest home.
My father introduced her to me and I thought her name sounded like a cat throwing up on a carpet. I also thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, tall and frosted like a mountain in winter. I kissed her hand, which smelled like a cat had thrown up on it, and told her my name.
“You look like your father,” she said, disapprovingly. And then she’d turned away from me, to Nick by-Basil, and she offered her cheek to him to kiss. But he didn’t kiss it, because he didn’t kiss anyone. Like the priests, magicians didn’t marry or love or kiss the cheeks of queens. It was supposed to be them and the magic.
Father had once told me, “Don’t ask a magician to love you, Snow. You’re asking them to cut off a limb or murder a child.”
I thought Nick by-Basil was the second most beautiful person I’d ever seen – and I was an expert, because I watched him a lot. He’d look terrible missing an arm.
NICK: I despised Snow White when I met her. Spoiled, beautiful, loved. She knew she had the raven’s eye and the river’s laugh and the madonna’s face. Her governess thought she was bright, quick, intuitive. Her father thought she was a rare beauty. There wasn’t a single servant in Swan-on-the-Water that wouldn’t lay down and die if they thought it would amuse Snow White. Her real mother already had.
If not for her father, Arthur, I would never have spoken to her.
One day, in the rose filled courtyard, Snow White stood by a rose the color of blood spilled unfairly, and she asked me, “Nick by-Basil, why do the animals hate you?”
I crossed my arms and looked at her. She was still small then, dark and petulant. She had begun to realize that her new stepmother hated her and it had made her dissatisfied with everyone else’s petting of her. She had abandoned childhood with irritated abruptness. I asked her, “Why do they love you, princess?”
She answered immediately, “Because they know I won’t hurt them.” She frowned at me, looking at me in a new light. "Is magic cruel?"
Her governess, at least, was right., about her.
SNOW: I think my stepmother fell in love with Nick by-Basil because he didn’t call her Elliscia. He called her by her middle name, Guinevere, which did sound much better. But I still didn’t see the point of calling cat yack by any other name.
“Nick by-Basil,” she would say, in her ringing voice. “Who is the most beautiful in Arthur’s land?” Because of course magicians were like priests. They couldn’t lie, or it would get in the way of the magic. So if a magician told you that you were ugly, you’d better believe you looked like a dog’s worse half.
But Nick by-Basil didn’t say she was ugly. He would always say, “Lady Guinevere, you outshine the flowers in the garden.” And he would look back to whatever he was doing. Sometimes he was counting the tiles in the entry hall. Other times he was braiding horsehairs and ribbons of silver into ropes.
And I would always mockingly mouth the words if I was in ear shot, and go back to what I was doing – bouncing my golden ball, painting some inane plein aire scene, repeating Latin verbs in my head, trying to figure out what Nick by-Basil was doing.
One day, though, when Elliscia asked her question, Nick by-Basil waited a long moment before answering. And then he said, “You outshine the flowers in the garden.”
But he looked at me.
NICK: Of course Elliscia fell in love with me. Women had a way of doing that. They want someone stable and unchanging and someone who speaks only the truth and they want what they can’t have and I epitomize all of those by my very nature.
But Elliscia was Arthur’s wife. Arthur. I carried the shame of her lust on my shoulders; I was a better magician and a worse soul for it.
“You would do anything for Arthur,” Elliscia said, one day, as we stood in the immense conservatory, lush tropical plants muffling the sounds of our existence. Her eyes were dark, bitter jewels; her voice was harsh with implied betrayal. I loved Arthur, she thought. I loved Snow White, she thought. She thought me a coward for not loving her as well.
“I would,” I said, because I had to speak the truth.
“And as his wife, I am one with him. So you would do anything for me.”
In the middle of this steamy exiled jungle, cold trickled through me. She would ask me to give my lips to her. To take her body. To give her my love. I could not live with any of those. So perhaps you’ll forgive my relief at what she truly said:
“Kill Snow White.”
SNOW: Nick by-Basil lured me on a ride with promises of showing me magic. I’d only ever seen the results of magic – the bodies, the piles of fruit, my heartbeat quick in my chest – never actual magic in process. So I went thoughtlessly with him into the woods.
He held my shoulder. “I am to kill you. Guinevere wants you dead. She invoked your father’s name.”
I had seen him sacrifice little creatures for the courtly magic before, and I knew I was just another little creature. “And you will do it,” I said. “Because you have to tell the truth.”
“I will show you magic,” Nick by-Basil said slowly. “And then you will fight me for your life.”
“Hit me as hard as you can, princess,” Nick by-Basil said. I smelled blood, and then, with magic that twisted my stomach, he was a raven before me.
I smashed him to the ground, a tangle of wings and feathers and Nick by-Basil, and I ran.
NICK: I brought Elliscia the heart of a boar and told her that Snow White was dead.
She never dreamed that I told anything but the truth. I was a magician, after all, and lies ruined the magic.
But I only did magic for Arthur, and Arthur didn’t tell anyone when my magic dried up and vanished like a creek in the summertime.
SNOW: I thought I would die. I was a princess. I didn’t know anything about finding food. You’ve heard the story, though, so you know I don’t. You know that I find the dwarves and that I clean for them and in return they love and me and it’s all very enriching for my personality. But what you don’t know is that it’s still about Nick by-Basil. Because after I had wandered in the forest for a few days, a raven appeared overhead. He waited until I saw him, and then he winged through the trees, spinning and turning so that he didn’t disturb even a leaf, and he brought me to the dwarves.
The raven returned every day for a few weeks, watching me clean the house and trade my snow-white skin for a nut-brown one. He was there to see me chop off my black hair the first day of fall, and then he was gone.
I knew why. I knew it was because he’d lied, and his magic was gone.
NICK: I was not there the day that Elliscia had the dwarves slaughtered and Snow White poisoned. I was ill, to the point of death, my magic shuttered inside me and my lies and my love wrapped around me. My own unspoken spells tore at my throat, caught my tongue, muddied my blood.
I was dying, dying, until Elliscia’s poisoned apple made my lie true.
NICK: She was to be woken by the kiss of true love. The kiss of a prince.
I would like to say that I killed Elliscia for her act, but I didn’t. I watched her grow old and weep over the loss of her beauty, while Snow White remained interminably beautiful in her glass coffin guarded by the graves of the dwarves.
Decades and centuries passed without prince or kiss and I watched from the trees. I watched until, one day, a shiny gray Mercedes drove up, and a chauffeur opened the door for a prince. He strode to the coffin, his lips puckered to kiss, his shirt pressed to impress, his hair slicked back in confidence.
And my magic fell from me, all at once, and I slid from the tree, to my feet.
“Who are you?” the prince demanded. His kiss was still wet on still Snow White’s lips.
“I am Nick by-Basil,” I said. “I am the son of Basil by-Malley, who was the son of Malley by-Sky, who was the son of Sky by-Merlin in his turn. I am from a family of huntsmen, highwaymen, miners, royalty. And it’s not your kiss that will wake her.”