“Vasilisa in the Forest, Dawn” Illustration by Ivan Bilibin

“Here they are,” Simplia said, lifting a grocery bag of letters onto the table.

“Let’s put them in here,” Sagacia said, popping open a flattened cardboard box.

“Okay, but I just want to read that letter from Julie Moss Herrera one more time before we mail them to Activist in Oslo. It was truly comforting to me, about my own stepmother, I mean.” She poured the letters out onto the table and began shuffling through them.

“Oh, let me read it to you!” said Sagacia, spying the envelope with the Colorado return address. “Here. Have some tea, and just listen.”

The Simpletons pulled out chairs across from one another at the table and sat down. Simplia cozied the teacup in her hands. Sagacia unfolded Julie’s letter. “Ahem,” she began.

Oh my, dear Simplia, my grandmother experienced a step-mother such as yours. We heard all the folktales about step-mothers, and, of course, the stories about my grandma’s step-mother made perfect sense. Grandma and her sisters were made to do all the work while the step-mother drank. My grandma left home at 14 to make her way in the world because she couldn’t take it any longer. She married my grandpa and found her mother-in-law was a witch. We actually still refer to her as “the witch” all these years later. Grandma was the strongest woman I have ever met. Here’s another HUG!

“That’s beautiful,” Simplia sighed. “Adversity can make one strong, I guess. If you survive. I wonder if I’m that strong. I hope so!”

“You are, Dear. Yes.” Sagacia assured her.

“I hope so,” Simplia said, as she began stacking handfuls of letters neatly and laying them into the box.

“You certainly are,” Sagacia repeated, stacking and straightening.

“But those step-back father people have a point, too,” Simplia said, fanning out the letters in her hand.

“Who?” Sagacia inquired.

“Oh, Fran Stallings and Rob Vanderwildt and Nick Smith, mainly,” Simplia replied, holding out the fanned envelopes. “And others, I’m sure. They noticed that when the father decides to remarry, he often seems to be just looking for someone to take the kids off his hands. They remarry and disappear.”

“Oh, yeah!” Sagacia said. “I saw those, and I agree. The stepmother couldn’t get by with so nearly much wickedness if the father took some personal responsibility.”

“Here’s Rob Vanderwildt‘s letter,” Simplia said, pulling a sheet out of its envelope. She read . . .

Referring to the Fran Stallings quote about the stepmothers and the non-existing stepfathers: in fairy tales we do have “step-back” fathers who are not caring for, not very much concerned about their children after their remarriage: Cinderella’s father, Snow White’s father… Where were they?

“And here’s Nick Smith’s,” Sagacia said. “He says . . .”

Rob Vanderwildt is right. There are many examples of the father either being conveniently killed off by the tale or failing to defend the children. Hansel and Gretel is one of the great examples of this.

In other cases, the father does something stupid and the child has to pay for the father’s mistake, in stories like Beauty and the Beast or Rapunzel. Somehow the father never gets around to rescuing the child in those stories.

As far as wicked stepfathers go, there aren’t as many surviving tales about them, for whatever reason. From England, there’s “The Little Bull Calf,” and Marie de France wrote at least one [“Yonec”], but compared to wicked stepmothers, they are very few.

“Those stories are both new to me,” Simplia said.

“Me, too, but I’m sure Activist in Oslo will be glad to hear about them. And, since they mention it, I’ve noticed those step-back fathers are everywhere! Hansel and Gretel’s, Nick said, and Rapunzels’ and Beauty’s and Cinderella’s, and Snow White’s father, and the father who gave his daughter to the king to spin his straw into gold, and that father in ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon,’ and the miller in ‘The Handless Maiden,’ and  . . .” Sagacia’s eyes suddenly opened widely, and she looked to see if her friend was thinking the same thing she was.

“And Vasilisa’s father!” they both said at the same time.

“Oh, poor Vasilisa! I never thought about it, but her father just wanted someone to rear his daughter, too!” Simplia said.

“And he didn’t recognize how cruel the widow he chose was,” Sagacia continued.

“And then he left, and never came back!” Simplia murmured.

“Never.” Sagacia repeated. “Not ever.” She looked at her friend. “And she’s the strongest woman I know. Vasilisa is.”

“True, but she could probably use a hug, too,” Simplia sighed

“A big hug!” Sagacia agreed.

“It’s the same old story, over and over again,” she lamented. It happens to so many of us!”

“Over and over again,” Sagacia repeated. She straightened the last few letters left on the table and put them in the box. “So many times!”

Simplia put her handful of letters on top. “From Vasilisa to me to Julie’s grandmother, It just never ends.”

It’s like a replay,” Sagacia said. “Or a sequel.” She closed the flaps. She stripped off some tape and sealed the box.

“Stepback Father II,” Simplia said.

“Return to the Planet of the Stepback Fathers,” Sagacia said, sticking on a mailing label. She wrote out Activist in Oslo’s address.

“Come on, my friend,” she said.

“Yeah. Let’s go mail away these sad reports!” Simplia said, getting up. “We can put an end to it!”

“I told you you were strong!” Sagacia said. “Come on! If we hurry, we can make it to the post office before closing time!”

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