The Latecomer’s Tale by Daniel Cossai
“Oh, grandmother, tell me the story of Cinderella!”
“My dear,” the grandmother told the little girl as they sat by the fireplace. “It is lovely, but wouldn’t you like to hear a new story?”
“Can you tell me the one about the sleeping princess?”
“Yes, of course, my child. But let me tell you what really happened this time. Do you want to hear the secret history of the beautiful sleeping girl?”
“Yes please, grandmother!”
The old lady put aside her knitting and began.
Once upon a time there was a little country girl, the prettiest you could ever see. Her mother loved her very much, and her father even more so. They called her Gemma, which means jewel.
When she was still a child, her mother grew very sick. As she lay dying, she was visited by a wise old fairy, and pleaded with her not to let her child suffer from such sickness.
“Madam,” the fairy replied. “Your child will never grow sick, but her demise will be caused by a man who loves her, but who will forget about her after not speaking to her for a year.”
Upon hearing this, her father, desperate not to lose her like his wife, decided to lock Gemma in a tall tower with no doors or stairs, in order to protect her from any man from the nearby villages. He visited Gemma every day, told her stories, and gave her everything she could ever wish for – but he never let her out.
When Gemma grew up, she began to ask, “Father, will I ever go out into the world and meet my Prince Charming?” To which her father would reply, “My jewel, who could possibly ever love you more than I?”
And so they lived for years. When she was alone in the tower, Gemma would sing to bide the time. She had a very beautiful voice, and one day a handsome prince who was riding close by heard her singing and decided to follow.
“Oh, grandmother, what was his name?”
“It was Doroteo,” replied the old lady. “But quiet now, and listen to the rest of the story.”
Doroteo finally arrived at the tower, and saw a beautiful young lady sitting on the window sill, the most beautiful he had ever seen.
“What is your name, maiden?” he called out.
“I am Gemma.” She was smitten, for it was the first time she had laid eyes on anyone who was not her father since she had been in the tower, and Doroteo was a very handsome man indeed. “And you?”
Doroteo and Gemma quickly fell in love. Doroteo visited her often, but could never find a way to get into the tower.
One day Doroteo lost track of time while out hunting, and arrived at the tower an hour later than usual. Gemma’s father was there, and he was furious when he found out that Gemma had been seeing a man for almost a year.
Now Gemma’s father was a powerful warlock. Eager to avoid the fairy’s prophecy, he decided to test Doroteo and conjured a large and dense forest all around the tower. Wanting to sound fair, he told Doroteo, “If you can find the tower again and be here by sunset tomorrow, I will let Gemma out and she will be yours forever, and I will welcome you as my son.
“But if you do not make it in time, she will fall into a long enchanted sleep, from which she can only wake with true love’s kiss exactly a year after.”
Doroteo accepted the challenge and headed back to his village. Clever as he was, he took out a piece of bread and dropped crumbs all the way out of the forest, so that he might find his way back easily the day after, and win her father’s approval.
“And then he found her and they lived happily ever after! What a beautiful story!”
“Have patience, my dear girl. Sadly, there is more to this story.”
The warlock had no intention of letting Doroteo find Gemma in time. He wanted to see whether Doroteo still loved her after a year, to make sure he was a safe match for Gemma. So he ordered his pet raven to fly throughout the forest, eating the bread Doroteo had dropped.
When Doroteo arrived at the edge of the forest the day after, there was not a single crumb left. He tried and tried to find the tower, but it was too easy to get lost in the woods.
Gemma waited all day on the window sill, singing to try and help him find her. As the sun sank lower, her heart did too.
“Doroteo, Doroteo,” she cried in agony, falling to her knees. “Where are you, Doroteo?”
And she fell asleep.
“Did he find her a year later, grandmother?”
“Yes he did, my dear, but perhaps it would have been better if he hadn’t…”
Doroteo did not forget about Gemma, as the fairy had predicted. For a year he explored the forest, found the tower, and learned the path by heart. He thought of how he could get inside the tower to kiss Gemma awake on the anniversary of her sleep, and decided to grow out his hair. By the time the day arrived, he had the longest hair in the country.
When he arrived at the tower, Doroteo realised that without Gemma there was no way he could tie his hair to the window and climb up. He was just starting to despair when – lo and behold! – the little old fairy appeared.
“Fairy, fairy, tie up my hair!” he cried.
With the fairy’s help, he climbed up the tower using his own hair, into the window, and finally lay eyes on the beautiful Gemma again. He went up to her, kneeled down, and kissed her.
But alas! She did not wake. For her father had forgotten that while she was asleep, she still needed the most basic thing – to be fed. Doroteo was too late – for love, for joy, for happily ever after. Gemma slept on forever the way she lived, inside a tower, without a prince.
“What happened to Doroteo then?”
“When I was a little girl, as young as you, I was passing through the woods on the way to my own grandmother’s house when I met a wild man whose hair covered the forest floor. ‘I am the one who arrived too late,’ he told me. He said that getting lost in the woods can be devastating, and helped me find the way to grandma. ‘You go down this path, and I will go down this one.’
“He never stopped loving Gemma, my dear child. He ran away and lived the rest of his life in the woods. He never cut his hair, and sometimes climbed the tower to be with Gemma one more time. They say he could speak to the animals, and even today, if you listen closely enough to the wolves’ howls at night, you will hear a faint echo.
‘Gemma, Gemma, Gemma…’