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When one looks in the box, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the cat.

Some Ways to Retell a Fairy Tale


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Some Ways to Retell a Fairy Tale

There's more to “once upon a time” than meets the eye...

Illustrated by Erin Vest


Published on November 8, 2023

There’s more to “once upon a time” than meets the eye…

A version of this story appeared in TEXT.


follow the story exactly, follow on, look behind, before, tell the other side or reveal that
everyone was mistaken, or that events are true but the meaning forgotten,

or that the events change meaning if you shift them, depending on the consequences, or that a
setting changes meaning if a story takes place in it,

make the mythic mundane, the mundane mythic,

or make the story itself a space, a sanctuary, a refuge outside of time to think and breathe
before returning to the world, an interlude to recover, rediscover, be wounded, be lost,
take heart, have it cut out,

or make the tale a presence that observes and pursues, that lopes alongside, that can be
perceived in the world, that intervenes in it, that you must be rescued from, that you can
turn to, that can be summoned (little house, little house),

or riff on the story, tell it backwards, turn it through, embroider it, weave it jacquard-wise
through another tale, or wrap its husk around another story, or look very closely at what’s
already there, and dissect it, and stitch it together better or worse or wrong, or lean hard
on its bruises, or change its moods, or hook chain tie yoke it to other tales,

or linger,

or drop a particular person into a role, or toss the story into another genre, or take all the
ornaments from it and hang them on something quite different, ennoble it, humble it, pull
its teeth, give it claws, send it to find its own fortune, to rescue its brothers,

make it a guardian for your children, or make it into a mask, or look behind one, or run
beside the tale, breathless,

or consider the devastation (or delight, or minor inconveniences) left in its wake, or trace the
logical consequences or the unexpected ones, or add a flavour, or dissolve the story into
wine and drink it, drip poison into it and give it to another, sharpen it to a knife’s-edge
and hold it to a throat,

fashion it into a key, open the door you were not meant to open, ask the one question you
must never ask, solve its riddles, tighten its laces, tighten the screws, add another stone to
the weight, to the cairn, mark graves with this story, dig graves with it, bury it, wait to see
what comes up,

or adjust one dial, kaleidoscope it, telescope it, tell something that almost looks like a story
you knew but isn’t quite, or make it necessarily universal or achingly particular, or a
window or a door or a table or a bed or a lie,

or disclose that a part of history can be seen as this story, or through the lens of this story, or
keep the story unchanged but play it in a different key, tell it in a different voice, use it to
prick a conscience or a finger, get distracted by something shining on the ground while
the story parades past on the horizon,

add blood, add fire, add love, take all of that away, find the bones of the story, grind them for
bread, bury them under a tree and listen to hear what will sing in those branches,

make three attempts at retelling it, or seven, or twelve,

dangle it in a stream, use it to keep curses at bay, use it to call witches,

use it as a map, fail to rely on it, be failed by it, build a mythology out of it, make it
jazz/punk/rock-and-roll, smash its icons, strip it for parts, make a mosaic, a shanty, a
mansion, a coat, a spell,

fit it for speed, steal its names, its breath, demand it keeps its promise, keep a promise for it,
or to it, or with it, be faithless, be faithful, take it in, let it rest by the fire and eat from
your plate, name it (or be named by it, or give it your name), find it in the ashes and raise
it up, find it on a doorstep and raise it as your own,

give it a chance to find its own feet, provide it with dancing shoes, iron shoes, shoes that burn
or cut, trade it for something better, hunt it through all the woods of the worlds, call cities
forests too, launch it into orbit, toss it like a ball,

play marbles with a dozen tales, play cats-cradle, let out its seams, make it over, hand it
down, hand it back, recreate its earliest form, crawl through it like a passage through
time, like a tunnel under a wall, use it to undermine a fortification,

use it as shade in summer, burrow into it for the winter, gnaw its carcass in a den, carry it out
of doors and pile it with others into a barricade, wave the story from the walls, burn it in

or paint it like a picket fence, drop it behind you like white stones, unravel it like a red thread,
recreate it in marble, mud, gingerbread, attach legs to it,

brood on it to see what will hatch, flee from its basilisk offspring,
stumble into a mirage, stumble over the tale itself,

fall down its stairs, fall up its stairs, solve its murder, send its characters off to fight crime, to
fight wars, set them free,

turn them loose, wind them up and let them go, listen at doors,

fold the story so small it could fit in a hazelnut, make it into three gowns, give it to the person
who asks, hide your heart in it, hide someone else’s heart in it, practise divination with its
entrails, cut off its head and nail it over the gate,

give someone what they asked for or deserved or wanted, give them what they needed, give
yourself what you lost, grant wishes, grant the story’s wishes, make it all better, make it
so much worse,

dress in its fashion, adopt its speech, remove its voice, give it someone else’s, steal a rose
from its garden, look in its distorting mirror,

cut the tale out of paper, see if it floats, see if it flies, burn it to see what appears in its smoke,
burn it to keep warm, fold it into new shapes, make it an invitation, an accusation, a
warning notice, a wanted poster, a challenge, a serenade, a prescription,

a basket of fresh bread and flowers, a nightcap and dressing gown, a quilt, a clever disguise, a
very large false moustache, a gift left on the workbench in thanks, a mechanical
nightingale, a bell on a cat, the sign by which you will know the true princess,

the irritant, the spindle, the smell of honey, the candle in the window, a hand of glory, the
news upon hearing which someone, somewhere, will spring up from beside the fire
exclaiming “Then I am the king of the cats!” and vanish up the chimney



A version of this story originally appeared in TEXT on October 31, 2022.

“Some Ways to Retell a Fairy Tale” copyright © 2022 by Kathleen Jennings
Art copyright © 2023 by Erin Vest



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Some Ways to Retell a Fairy Tale
Some Ways to Retell a Fairy Tale

Some Ways to Retell a Fairy Tale

Kathleen Jennings

About the Author

About Author Mobile

Kathleen Jennings


Kathleen Jennings is a writer and illustrator based in Brisbane, Australia. Her Australian Gothic debut, Flyaway, was published by Tordotcom (Pan Macmillan, USA) and Picador (Australia) in 2020, and has been published in French (by les Moutons électriques) in 2023. Her short fiction has been published in, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and many other markets. Her debut poetry collection Travelogues: Vignettes from Trains in Motion was published by Brain Jar Press in 2020. Her writing has won the British Fantasy and Ditmar Awards, and been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award and The Courier Mail People’s Choice Book of the Year Award (Queensland Literary Awards). She is also a World Fantasy Award-winning and Hugo Award-nominated illustrator. Her short story collection Kindling is to be published by Small Beer Press in January 2024, and she is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Queensland.
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