The Magic Pipe The Pied Piper
At least the girl wore white. The bright night-gown shimmered as she ran. The heavens thundered, and glowed as if burning.
In this early dead of morn, thunder woke him first. Then he heard the bells. Alfhelm had not stopped to fasten his boots. They threatened to fly free as he pounded the ground. Despite this impediment he gained on the child as she crested the rise, toward the cavernous mountain. She glanced back at him with dark, cunning eyes, seeming to shrink even as he approached. She scrabbled up a steep bank, dropping to all fours; lithe, rat-like, and he did know rats. The whole of Hamelin knew rats.
Like the others, the child displayed uncanny agility. She clawed at the gravel, grasping with small, pink hands at deep-rooted plants as if she knew weeds, and had tasted their bitter roots.
But Alfhelm was bigger, faster, stronger. He caught the girl-rat by her tail of rope which trailed, half-chewed, from her left ankle. He wrapped it quick round his wrist and yanked her down hard, onto a flat of grass. He wrestled her onto her knobbly back. He pressed her sinewy arms to the earth and straddled her narrow waist. Like this she might not escape.
Oh, others had. Others had transfigured and squeezed free, even from death grips like this. Or the earth had revealed its ghostly portal, right there, right then, and Alf had seen it himself. He’d seen the earth open to trepan the children, leaving the grown behind to mourn.
But if Alfhelm were to wail a sleepsong, one he had learned in church, he might drown out the pipe. So he sang to the beat of a distant gong. He heard only church bells himself. At twenty-nine years of age, Alf was too old to hear the pipe spell himself. Men with beards and women with blood were immune from the tune; or such was the calculation.
Alfhelm wept as he sang to his captive.
“Lullay, lullay, la, lullay…”
The creature kept struggling, though her face resumed its human form.
Only then did he recognise the child—a young woman, he had thought—a talented spinster and companion to his wife.
She gnashed and she squealed. This might have disturbed him greatly, and it had the first time he bore witness, running after children, who ran after night-music. But little could shock him now.
“Fräulein! Come back to us!” He wanted to slap her from her nightmare, but that did nothing; it only left marks. He had to stay like this, straddling and struggling, until the girl’s head-music abated.
Alf’s wife, encumbered by bawling babe, came panting up the incline. Other grim faces followed. They brandished sticks of fire.
“Blitza, you say?”
“Young Fräulein Fischer?
“Is that Blitza Fischer you saved?”
Alf let them see the girl for themselves.
Marlein covered her mouth in shock.
Alf addressed the small group. “How old is Blitza? Has she not been spinning for three full years? Has this one not come of age?”
Husband and wife locked shining eyes.
What more could be said? The Pied Piper had cleared Hamelin of rats. But then he returned for the children. They disappeared as the rats had, few by few, in the hours before dawn, when guardians fell into deep slumber.
Parents roped their young to their beds, but rat-children gnawed and they tore. They bit at their strongman keepers with jagged teeth, never to be worn smooth by a lifetime of grainy broth and grit bread.
Parents bolted the doors and stopped the windows, but rat-children still found gaps.
They sent their children to the monastery in a last-ditch attempt to save the remaining few.
“Grab them! Down them!” shouted the monks, startled from unintended snores.
“No, no, let the devils go!”
The monks stood frozen like altarpiece figurines as the last of Hamelin’s children scrambled from makeshift cages and shimmied through cracks out of the abbey. As sure as dawn swallows shadows, the mountain gobbled them up.
The Pied Piper took every last child. He took little deaf Poppo, who pressed his belly to the ground and drummed the dirt with backhands, as if he felt the terrible tabor. Right, left, right-right he paradiddled, faster and faster, then up he leapt, mountain-bound, on his dancing feet.
The pipe took little Albert, who followed the music as if it granted sight.
The pipe took Petrissa, who cast aside her cane and sallied forth toward the mountain portal as if propelled by the whip and lash of a proxy appendage.
And now the piper had come for a maiden, of sixteen years and four plus moons.
The enemy was expanding his range. Next he would come for them all.
The dwindling town of Hamelin comprised marauders and mourners; most were a little of both. A gaggle of old men hiked to the monastery to smash its stained glass windows. The monks were long since gone, selling their thoughts and prayers to a more auspicious town.
Mothers had little to occupy their hands—no mash to prepare, no children to clothe, no rooms worth sweeping.
Old women gathered around the fire pit on High Street. They chanted all the livelong day, hoarse and cracked, as if to draw the children back from their holes. Alas, they weren’t witches. But one old hag, excluded from social gatherings, came in useful now. She stood on a box near the fire and repeated her night visions in well-rehearsed prose.
“First he sends his rats. The rats eat the grain, then we all are rats. I seen him.”
“What does he look like, old woman?”
“The terrible murrain wears piper’s robes, holed by rats but lined with ermine. He hides in the nearby woods, always waiting, always watching. Then he strikes again.”
“Where in the woods, exactly?”
“Oh, you’ll hear him before you see him.”
She said no more than that.
With nothing left but desperation, the strong young men of Hamelin divvied themselves in two. One cohort scoured the woods for the rag-tag jongleur, listening in vain for his pipe and tabor. The rest kept vigil in town, leaping after escapees whenever the church bells tolled and the sky thundered red.
Another three moons waxed and waned, against redder and redder skies. Still the huntsmen did not return with the Piper. Night-watch had not saved the children. Not a single, God forsaken one.
But there was a twinkling of hope, in the shape of a newborn; Alf and Marlein’s babe, who squalled extra shifts in the night, tormented by music but unable to run on his rolled-pancake legs. Robust and kicking, the baby needed constant feeding and soiled his cloth as ever. For this reason, Marlein alone had not lost hope. She knew what she must do.
First, she must leave the baby with Alf.
“Don’t nod off,” she warned, knowing he’d been charged with vigil all night, all season. She’d seen what babies could do. One day they’re bleating blobs of flesh; the next they’re toddling toward the well, wondering how deep it goes down.
She knew not what the Piper could do. His magic remained mysterious. Her baby might break free of his swaddle and somersault up the mountain, or glide away on his blanket, gripping invisible notes in tight little fists.
Nor did she trust the grieving mothers, who might seize her baby as surrogate.
“You hear me, mein Herr? Sit up, now. Sit on the stool, and when you’ve stopped shaking, then you must pack.”
“Where are we going? What’s to be done?”
“I’m off to gather the nubile. The music came for Blitza. Any time now, the pipe may play for Lukas. Lukas is sixteen, I think.” Marlein counted on her fingers. “His friends, Hart and Ruthard. Linda and Nella. Each unmarried and under twenty. Glindis, Oss and Ordulf, too. You and I will lead them into the woods. With luck we’ll encounter the hunters. We’ll camp with them. Even if we don’t find the Hamelin hunters, the cloak of woods might save us.”
“I don’t know about that, my love. They say The Pied Piper waits in the woods.”
“Perhaps he waits in the woods knowing the woods are safe.”
Alf gazed at his son, asleep in his arms.
“There’s something about Hamelin, Alf,” Marlein continued. “This town alone was cursed with the rats, and now with the famine.”
If Marlein was hellbent on taking refuge in the woods, he and the babe would have to go with her. Apart from the pain of leaving his small family, Alf wished he’d been sent on the hunt. “I return no argument. Anywhere’s better than here.
Alfhelm’s boss gave Marlein his horses and cart, not expecting them back. Next, Marlein went to collect Blitza.
Blitza was a sobbing mess. There had been yet another game of chase. Someone else had saved her, just. She’d begged to be tied to the flagstaff, with a ball and chain normally reserved for criminals. Old women held blanket curtains whenever she needed the pot. Blitza refused to be untethered, even for that, lest the pipe start singing and transform her into rat flesh.
“Come with us, Blitza, far far from here.” If Marlein could not persuade her, no one could. Except for perhaps young Lukas, so Marlein went to his cottage.
Lukas threw his sack of worldly possessions onto the cart. Next they gathered the rest of Hamelin’s youth. Marlein crossed her heart and promised forlorn parents a safe and hasty return. She wasn’t sure she meant it, but she managed to sound persuasive.
And when Blitza saw Marlein pass back through with every last one of her friends, including Lukas her beau, Blitza joined the troupe after all, as Marlein had predicted.
In sombre procession in front of the cart, Alf and Marlein walked the troupe out of Hamelin. Alf held the baby and led the horses. Marlein held the stick of fire. The in-betweeners strode behind in a funereal procession. All the weeping townsfolk lined High Street as they left. Some clutched onto knotted rags in the shape of malnourished babes. Marlein bid farewell as they passed, because now at least they would hear it from someone.
“Good bye, Mama, Papa.”
“Good bye, Oma.”
They walked and they walked, all afternoon, away from the mountain, away from the dreadful sunset. Weakened by recent events, Blitza lay down in the cart, along with their paltry, black-flecked provisions and nibbled assortment of blankets. Lukas was permitted to join her, threading his fingers through hers, cushioning her head with his concave belly.
When the heavens changed hue, young Blitza sat up in the cart. She was first to cover her ears. Marlein noticed because she’d watched them all closely.
“Do you hear it again, Blitza?”
Blitza wouldn’t answer. She only started to hum.
Marlein had memorised their ages, down to the nearest month. Blitza was youngest, at fourteen and two. Next youngest was Glinda, who closed her eyes and tugged at her earlobes.
Marlein’s heart lurched. “What is it, Glindis? Tell me!”
“I’m imagining things.”
They were outside Hamelin now. She’d hoped they’d all find safety here.
“Halt the horses, Alf!”
The clippity-clop yielded to silence.
“Listen, Glindis? Do you hear that pipe? Do you?”
Glindis stumbled in a tight, weary circle, looking back toward the jagged mountain, which met with pinkening sky.
Though impossible to describe to immune elders, Glindis did try. “The tune creeps up on you. It knells indistinct, like a ringing of ears before the hunger-faint. Next it comes with a gush of promise. Then pleasure.” Nature-lover Glindis had been offered a God-yield of sparrows brighter than peacocks, if only she entered the hole in the ground.
“I think I hear it, too.” Seventeen-year-old Hart mumbled and looked at the ground.
“Why didn’t you say something earlier? I told you all to speak up!” Marlein’s anger was borne of desperation. She held fire to each of their faces. Each of them heard it—its ill-will and murmurs—and all wished they could not.
“Get out of the cart, Luke. You too, Blitza.” She huddled them round her, gripping their shoulders tight. “Listen to the tune,” she cautioned, “but not too carefully. You must lead us away from the pipe. Do you understand? There must be a gap in his trap. Lead us through it together. But keep us away from Hamelin. Away from the mountain, too.”
The in-betweeners wondered if it came from the horizon of dark trees. Then they thought they saw a pale buttering of sky as it joined a yonder horizon, beyond rolling pastures and scrub. They linked arms and negotiated a route toward the hope of light. They would try an unexpected loop-route into the trees, away from the mountain, away from the red.
Pa-tum, pa-tum, the world thundered.
The baby began to cry. Marlein passed the fire stick to Alf and walked with babe to breast, though he fussed and wouldn’t latch. She hung back, so the in-betweeners might stealth together and listen close for the safety of silence.
Alf led the horses into the grass. They’d have to ditch their cart if the in-betweeners insisted on traversing ditches and fields.
Marlein tugged at her husband’s cloak. “What are they doing?”
Alf clicked his tongue for the horses and glanced at the elbow-linked youth. “They’re doing as you asked, gnädige Frau.”
“No, look! They’re loping toward the rise!”
Alf peered through the red and saw his wife was right. This wasn’t a mountain, though. Just a knoll. He glanced grimly back at the cart. “Call them back, Marlein. We must each carry our share.”
But Marlein gasped before he could finish his sentence. The in-betweeners had dispersed, and now they were running, scampering, as fast as their legs could carry them, thump, thump, leap, over the grassy dome until only their heads were visible.
Tired though he was, Alf sprang into action. He loped over the knoll, and already he counted some gone. One mis-stepped. He grabbed it by the waist and flung it over his shoulder. Another tripped and he grabbed that, too.
Shielded from view by the rise of the knoll, Marlein hushed her baby, hushed her own self.
Eventually Alf’s rat-captives ceased with the flailing. He’d barely held them both.
“Get off me!” they squealed, baring their pointed teeth.
“You’re safe, I have you.”
“Where am I?”
“Who am I?”
Alf un-kneed them and caught his own breath.
He’d rescued young Glindis, and Blitza twice now.
But the boys had gotten away: Hart and Ruthard and Oss and Ordulf, each in fulsome youth. They were too fast for Alf, who was older and slower at twenty-nine. The incline licked the boys up. Just like that. Robust Linda and long-legged Nella followed after.
The diminished party returned to the cart. The heavens glowed and thundered.
Marlein dropped to the ground and lifted her chin toward Heaven.
“Why us?” she screamed. “Why now?”
No one deciphered the thunderous reply.
The horses needed hobbling. Their spirited eyes whitened and their whinnies pierced the air, so that Marlein wondered if livestock heard the pipe, too.
They dare not go anywhere. Not back, not forth. They might have tried the graveyard, where the dead are buried already, and whose ghosts might protect their own mounds. But the graveyard was too close to Hamelin.
Husband and wife slept sheltered by the cart, halfway between Hamelin and woods, baby between them and two surrogate daughters, the smallest and slowest of the in-betweeners. Marlein wished she could feed them. If only the girls were small again, but small in a good way, not in the way of rodents and dearth.
They sobbed all night. All of them cried, including Alf; Alf most deeply, hoping to drown out the pipe, if only for Blitza and Glindis.
The thunderous flashing gave way to sunlight; timidly at first, then enough to start a fire and a thin breakfast of gruel.
A red sky made for cold mornings. They leaned into each other and passed the sipping pot.
What now? All four thought it and no one dared ask.
They needed a new plan. Something. Anything.
“We’ll finish our meal,” Marlein said, “then we’ll visit the bog.”
No one asked why, but they followed her anyhow, to a place only women knew. Marlein and Blitza and Glindis collected handfuls of moss. Alf watched on as they kneaded the sphagnum like dough between palms, and then he guessed its purpose. Marlein used much of it, especially after the birth of their son, when ten wombfuls of blood unclogged. Blood moss, she called it. It saved her tunics from impossible stains.
Alf turned away from the women’s business. “I’ll meet you back at the woodland path.”
As he waited he stroked the horses and cooed to the baby, and wondered why the girls needed blood moss if they also heard the pipe.
But they had found a new use for it. Now they walked toward him, poking it into their ears, checking it would stay.
“Do you hear me, Glindis?” asked Blitza.
“Here, use more.”
Marlein looked spent. Though blood moss contained its own protective magic, it would never save girls from night-pipe.
Marlein took Alf by the hand and, moss-ears notwithstanding, she led him into the shrubbery so Blitza and Glindis could not overhear. She put one palm to his beard.
“The girls have worked it out,” she whispered. “They discussed it between them yesterday, and now they are sure.”
“What do you mean?”
“They worked out who he’s taking, exactly. The line between young and old.”
“Is it not the beards and the blood?”
Marlein shook her head. “These two have bled with the moon. A handful of times each, before the rats and the sickness. They know what moss is for.”
“Then what divides child from elder?”
“There’s another kind of blood, Alfie. It’s that.”
Alf considered this. “We’ve been wrong about much already.”
Marlein kissed her husband, who pulled away, needing to speak. “What are you asking of me, Liebling?”
Marlein beseeched him with her eyes.
“Oh, no. That’s unholy, that’s wrong.”
“So, so much is wrong. They asked me, Alfie. They pleaded for favour back at the bog. Is it not worth a try? Men giveth, though the piper taketh away. You did put our baby in me, remember? If that’s not counter-magic, I don’t know what is.”
’Twas not yet noon. Alf strode ahead, deep in thought. He’d promised Marlein an answer before nightfall.
But first they’d walk, further into the woods. With luck and prayer they’d encounter the Hamelin hunting party. Many were bachelors. Alf considered the group. His thoughts lingered on one name in particular—his friend Bolt Jäger. At twenty-three, Bolt was already widowed. Experienced, but not too experienced. He lost his wife to the plague but remained strong and healthy himself. Bolt was the quiet type. He spoke kindly of women. Indeed, Bolt Jäger was the clear choice.
He voiced these thoughts to Marlein.
“And you expect to find Bolt Jäger before nightfall?” Marlein seemed angry.
“Perchance we will.”
“In this vast, sprawling greenwood? Really, Alfhelm? We’ll find the Piper first.”
Blitza and Glindis lingered behind, as they had all day, ever since the bog of blood moss. The troupe had long since abandoned their cart. The girls led one horse each. They eyed Alf with… what? He couldn’t fathom. An unnerving admixture of desire and fear? They whispered to each other from a distance and he knew he was the object of their thoughts. He wanted to scream at his wife. How dare she offer him up? How dare she consider lending him out!
In the late afternoon, Marlein demanded Alf’s answer, either way. “We’ll never find the hunters,” she said. “Not before sundown.”
“The dark of trees makes the day seem later. Let’s wait.”
“It is late, Alf. It’s late, it’s late, and the girls are terrified.”
“They’re terrified of me,” he spluttered. “To them I’m as bad as the piper. Don’t you see that too? You haven’t thought this through. What if I put babies inside them? What then?”
“We’ll raise them as our own. Lord knows, Hamelin needs babies.”
“And if the girls wish to mother their own, to build their own families?”
“We’ll live together as family. I accept them as sisters, or daughters. It doesn’t matter. Apart from that, these two haven’t used blood moss in months. I doubt that would happen.”
“But, if?” Alf wished he knew exactly how babies came about. Women seemed to know more on this topic, but kept it between God and themselves. Alf did not know why babies came some times and other times not. He knew his stiff member was key. Without the Godlike intervention of their husbands, women rarely managed it.
“Am I to support three wives,” he whispered, “against the Church?”
Marlein was reassured by this question. “You’re thinking about it, then.”
“By the face of God! I’ve thought of little else.”
“Lend them your night-magic. Please, Alfie. Do it for us. For all of us.”
Alf glanced back at the girls. They held thin hands to their ears. He didn’t want to run anymore. He didn’t think he could. “Talk me through it,” he whispered. “And then we’ll decide together.”
They found a clearing roofed by leaves. A little of the heavenly red fretted through. They built a new campfire.
This took some time. Blitza and Glindis gathered wood while Alf meditated with the flint and fire-iron. No one thought of eating, so they drank from the nearby river and declared the night a fast.
Marlein filled and refilled the flask. She’d use water somehow, as priests do in church. This act, this heathen workaround, required a stopgap ceremony. They’d devise their own ritual, alone as newfound family, sheltered from civilisation in their cathedral of leaves.
Marlein prepared a bed of heather. She made it thick and wide, and then she collected rocks. She enclosed the mattress in a hallowed stony circle.
She held two twigs in her fist. Blitza drew the long one and wanted the whole thing over.
“Alfie. It’s time.”
By rights it should be dark. Diffuse shafts of red peeked through the branches and danced with wicked pleasure.
“My man won’t hurt you,” Marlein whispered, forehead against foreheads. “He is good, he is kind. Close your eyes and think of your own poor beaus.”
Blitza could not think of Lukas. Not without tears and losing herself to nature.
Alf was standing by the heather mattress, facing away. At first she thought he was passing water. Then she guessed he was preparing his equipment. Despite the chill his surcoat was off. So was his tunic. He’d used his garments to cover the heather. He’d done that for her, for Blitza, who’d be pinned underneath against rough spikes; or perhaps Marlein had suggested the gesture.
“Alfhelm?” She tried not to squeak, but it came out wrong.
He turned to face her, though she could not make out his face. He stepped forward, into a shaft of light. His abdomen uncloaked from its deep triangle of shadow.
“Do you hear the pipes?” he asked.
Perhaps Alf also planned to keep his eyes closed. He hadn’t seen her nod. “Do you, Blitza? Do you hear them now?”
“A little,” she replied.
“And you’re sure you want this?”
Why was he asking? What did that mean, anyway? Want, hunger, all the things she’d felt for Lukas… She knew desire and this wasn’t it, exactly. But her friend’s powerful husband had saved her mortal soul, not once but twice, and Blitza had returned both times to the firmness of him, the enchanting smokewood scent of him, pressing her to the ground like a warm and heavy blanket. She wanted him, in a way, but she did not want this. Not with that nightmare pipe as ambience, rising and falling in pitch. Moss in the ears did nothing to quell it. She’d pulled hers out.
“Lie down, then.” He spoke quietly, with resignation.
Blitza suspected he saw the rat in her. He’d seen her at her most base, as she shrieked and scrabbled and ran, knobble-spined and black-eyed and covered in fine, downy hair. She wore the hair still. It covered her arms and her legs, and also her shoulders and back. It grew to warm her bones, her spindly child-like bones, lately lacking in meat. The rats had brought the hunger and now they were all part rat.
Blitza lay on the heather, across Alf’s clothing. She closed her eyes.
“Hold me down,” she said, “as you did before.”
She only wanted to scamper.
He did as she asked. Then he began his chant, which did not drown out the pipe, but only enhanced it. His deep voice meshed and melded into the screech of it, making it better, making it worse.
“Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.
Where hate rules, let me bring love,
Where malice, forgiveness.”
“Please just do it, Alf. I’m begging you.”
He didn’t object to her calling him by his familiar name. He gripped her wrists and straddled, only this time he thrusted too.
“O Master, let me strive to comfort others,
To understand others,
To love others, more than to be loved!”
Why was he chanting of love? Blitza felt warm droplets fall upon her cheek. He wept as he pressed into her, and he choked as he spoke, thrusting intermittently.
“For he who gives, receives,
He who forgets himself, find—”
“Finish, Alf. Please finish.”
He slumped on top of her in a heavy, slobbery mess. “I’m sorry, I can’t. I can’t let go, but that should be enough.”
He gathered the strength to roll free of her. Cold and shivering, Blitza reached down with one hand. She felt a new wetness. She held two fingers close to her face, to be sure the moisture was blood. Bright red it was, under the night-red shafts. This was different from moon blood—more like that of a wound. She was safe now—permanently impervious to childhood dangers.
Everything was better.
“Lord have mercy,” she said. “You saved me, Alf. I mean it.”
He hunched naked on the ground and she wanted to stroke his head, to offer comfort. But comfort wasn’t hers to give.
And for Alf it wasn’t over.
Blitza pulled down her tunic and returned to the campfire. She stung a little in the sacred chamber, but he’d done it gently and hadn’t lingered.
Glindis sat alone, hugging herself and scratching at her arms. Marlein was equally unavailable as comfort. Through the trees, she waded knee-deep in the river, cradling her baby, drowning her own bad music. Even from the campfire, over the swiftness of river, Glindis and Blitza could hear her pray.
Blitza whispered to Glindis. “It wasn’t awful. Go to him now, or the devil’s pipe will get you.”
Against the flame, Glindis flickered a deathly hue. But she went to the mattress of heather, ears poked with moss, mouthing her own incantation.
Blitza sat alone. The fire looked the same. It would always remind Blitza of piper’s sky. But now she was immune to it. She would not succumb to the grip of his spell. One earthly man had countered the evil. That’s all it took. A few deep thrusts of manly magic and everything about her was changed forever.
Perhaps relief was meant to be brief. Now she must wallow in sadness; for all the missing children, and for kith and kin who’d died in their beds.
Join us! Join us, they whispered, calling through the trees. The campfire brightened and bulged. Blitza rose up, filled with joy. The trees grew skyward and weeds grew into trees. She tumbled after the whispers; bounding, skittering, careening through woods, twisting into the undergrowth, searching for an earthly escape. Birth must have felt like this. It no longer mattered but now she knew; a man’s sacred pipe is naught but appendage—nothing magic, but a bolt of beautiful flesh.
I wrote this fractured tale after reading The Legend of the Pied Piper. I wondered at what point adolescents became immune to the Piper’s magic music. Was it when they turned a certain age in years? Or was it when they went through puberty? Puberty takes a while. So there must have been a period during which adolescents were maybe immune to it, maybe not, right in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood.
For girls ‘womanhood’ is clearly marked by the menarche, but what if everyone in your town is starving and you aren’t menstruating because of underweight. What would make you a woman then?
There was one obvious answer to that, and I thought of all those stories, and the dominant cultural narrative, in which a woman’s virginity is marked by one particular act, and this act requires a man.
We’re also living in the era of the Strong Man leader, and I made sure to end this re-visioning to subvert the narrative that a man can save us all. Societal improvement is always, always a community effort.
Winter Rose Beauty and the Beast
A merchant wanted to go to a fair. He asked his three daughters what he should bring back for them.
This time, none of the daughters replied.
Frida, the eldest, had checked the money pot. It was almost empty. Father spent much time away, talking to shippers, meeting with wholesalers. Frida didn’t fully grasp what these words meant, or what her father did to earn those irregular bundles of cash, but if he wanted to play at genie, granting three wishes before each of his escapades, he’d do well to return with the goods.
Frida needed to understand where money came from and how to get it. How did ships get lost? Who seized them? If she knew where to find these people, with their spices and perfumes, with their parrots and peg-legs, she would fill the family cash pot herself. Then the sisters would eat.
“Well? None of you maidens wants a single little thing?”
He always did this. Bernhard Schroder liked to leave town on a high note, leeching optimism from his girls. He required full participation in these ridiculous one-act tragedies, in which Bernhard himself believed in promises.
So the girls asked for impossible things. They clapped with the pretence of anticipation.
At least, they used to.
“Where are you going, exactly?” Frida asked instead.
“There and back to see how far it is,” he replied, surprising no one.
“Ten leagues? One hundred?”
Frida knew their father would not be pinned down on routes and dates. Bernhard cherished the illusion that time is irrelevant; that seasons come, seasons go; everything comes good in the end.
Frida’s full-blood sister, fifteen years of age, kept eyes on their father, ostentatiously unpegging his winter coat. This provoked a tiny panic. “I would like some new shoes, Father,” she said.
“Thank you, Elvira. I will return with a pair of pretty shoes.”
“No,” Frida said. “Elvira’s feet have stopped growing now. She needs boots. A good pair of leather work boots would last ten years.”
Elvira launched into one of her coughing fits and hid both sooty feet under the bench. She’d grown out of her footwear, and not just because her toes were puffy and sore with a mild case of trench foot. Chilblains were a second nuisance, tingling at night, keeping her awake. But if she walked the streets rather than ride in carts, that seemed to get the blood flowing. That much was bearable.
Frida had noticed all this. Bernhard had not.
“Look at Elvira’s feet,” Frida insisted.
Elvira’s feet were out of Bernhard’s view from his position near the door, but he regarded his eldest suspiciously. “Elvira would like shoes, and she shall receive her pretty shoes,” he said. “And I shall buy dainty booties for you too, Frida, though you’re too proud to ask. You two need all the help you can get.” He muttered that last part.
Then he turned to the youngest, who sat in her usual childlike way, knees under chin.
“And you, Beauty. What will you have, sweetheart?”
“I would like a rose,” she said. “A real one, with a smell.”
“My my! What a task! A rose, indeed, and with winter setting in.”
Frida’s heart ached for her twelve-year-old sister. Beauty must have worked him out, too; that this was a fantasy role-play and, if played in earnest, she was bound for disappointment.
Frida suppressed her desire to shove their father out the door. Now he had his coat on, and his riding crop and his hat, she really needed him gone.
She knew how to get rid of him, too.
“Bring me a new dress,” she declared. She stood up and twirled ungraciously, daring her father to look, to really look at her. “You’re right, father. I need help. I get it, okay? I’m not pretty. See this tunic? It’s barely holding together.” She approached her father, edging him nearer to his stage exit, wishing he would see the mismatched patches of cloth. “I request from you, dear father, a French ballgown with petticoats and a hoop. Make it a sparkling turquoise blue, to compensate for these watery, no-colour eyes, inherited from my ugly dead mother. You’d better make it a shiny satin, since my hair is lank and dull.”
“I never said your mother was a hag. I wouldn’t say that, exactly.” Bernhard seemed shocked for a moment, which was the best Frida could hope for. Then he grasped her by the shoulders and squeezed her hard with his large, hairy hands, as if to contain her, and everything inside her. Then he recited his usual axiom—that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Even plain girls can find happiness, especially if they are good.
“And you, dearest Beauty?” Bernhard released Frida and beckoned his youngest, unaware of the irony. “A cuddle before I go?”
Beauty stepped forward obediently and accepted the long smother, leaning into him, breathing him in, holding her tears.
Outside, Bernhard Schroder mounted his horse. “I’ll bring you all the things!” he promised, as if the neighbours were listening. “You just watch, I’ll bring back a rose.” He said this while glaring at Frida, though it wasn’t Frida who had asked for the impossible gift.
One week later, the Schroder daughters were out of money. They were almost out of food.
“I shouldn’t have asked for the rose,” Beauty said quietly. “I shouldn’t have kept him away.”
Tired of making every little decision, Frida placed their last three potatoes on the table. “Do we eat all three tonight and sleep on full bellies, or do we share one between us and save the other two?”
Simply forming the sentence tired her out. But at least potatoes were real. This was a real decision based on solid things. It was the possibilities and maybes which truly exhausted her: What if Father remained gone for his usual stint of two months? The farmers spoke of heavy snow. Even if Father did plan an imminent return, he and his old horse would have trouble getting home.
Elvira looked right through the potatoes and offered no opinion.
But Beauty seemed galvanised. “Come,” she said, and pulled Frida by the hand. Frida followed her little sister outside to the vegetable garden, with its failed winter crops.
“I discovered something,” Beauty said. “See these greens?” She bent to pick a weed. “You can eat this.” As proof she put the sprig of spiky leaves into her mouth and chewed.
Frida was horrified.
“Don’t worry, I worked out a pattern—weeds that grow in the same soil as vegetables are mostly edible. But the weeds are more hardy, I guess. They survived where our vegetables failed. Here, try this.”
Frida was unbearably hungry, but the sprig held before her was mostly thin roots, clumped with gritty dirt. She’d rather try her luck with the yellow and brown cabbage leaves, which Beauty had left in the ground as a depressing reminder. They remained without heads.
“Please taste it, Freddy?”
Frida accepted the weed. She must pacify her little sister, whose job was to tend the garden, and who had done nothing wrong. No one’s brassicas had come through this season. Some years were like that.
“Granted it’s sour, but not sour-sour, not like poison.”
“Beauty, I don’t want you trying any more weird plants, okay?”
Beauty didn’t answer. “The snow’s coming tonight, Freddy. We should gather all the vegetable weeds and make a big salad.”
“Did you hear me, little sister? No more taste-testing the weeds. I’m serious.”
“Help me gather the salad.” Beauty avoided Frida’s gaze. She piled sprigs and dirt into her apron.
Frida dropped to the ground to help. She plucked the least grassy ones, following Beauty’s lead. She wiped her cheek hoping Beauty hadn’t noticed the escaped tear. This was their life now. Her beautiful little sister, forced to eat weeds. Weeds. Like a goat.
Under the snowy-dark sky, even Beauty blended in to the winter garden. Her tunic needed a wash. Her large eyes, once beguiling, were now sunken into shadowy hollows. That chin, which used to taper into a fine pixie-point, now seemed to jut. She hadn’t brushed her hair. Or maybe she’d been brushing it too much, pulling it out by the clump.
“These have tough stems,” Beauty said, showing Frida a different kind of weed.
“Maybe we can boil them.” Frida’s voice was unexpectedly shaky. A stupid suggestion anyway. If they boiled the weeds their meal would shrink to a slimy nothing.
Beauty snuck concerned glances at Frida’s tears but knew not to mention them. Instead she countered with a smile—a sneaky-secret smile. For a moment Frida dared to hope Beauty had planted an extra crop of vegetables, somewhere on the outskirts of town where Frida hadn’t ventured—a crop which she’d been saving for a desolate time such as this.
“If I were nineteen like you,” Beauty ventured, “I’d marry Walter Becker.”
Frida snorted. A little snot flew out.
“Eew! Don’t do that in front of Walter.”
“Oh shut up, cheeky!” Frida wiped her entire face with one sleeve. “Full of bright ideas, you are.”
Frida felt like crying for real this time. “Oh, I know you are.”
Beauty had seen the tear. She noticed every minor vicissitude in emotion and was skilled in the art of comfort. “Walter’s handsome, don’t you think? I like his dimples.” She poked two fingers into her cheeks. Beauty didn’t need her own dimples. She was born with every other natural advantage.
Frida had thought often about Walter’s dimples. And his black, curly hair. And his compact, lithe body. “Walter is what you call a ‘player’,” she said sagely. “All the girls like Walter Becker.”
“You’re smart in your own way,” Beauty mused, chewing on a rooty sprig, “but you get things back-to-front, big sister. All the girls like Walter. But Walter himself likes one girl back.”
The Schroder daughters dined on salad and whole potatoes that night. They slept well and awoke to a world of white.
Elvira stayed in bed. This was the best place for her. Last night’s sustenance would last longer that way. But Frida tugged on her boots. She had the best boots.
“Where you going?” Beauty asked. “Wait and I’ll help you.”
“I’ve stacked a day’s wood on the stoop,” Frida said. “Take care of Elvira. I’m off to find work.”
“What kind of work?”
“Anything. I can do anything, right?” Frida winced. She sounded like their father, looking to Beauty for reassurance.
Beauty came through. “You can do anything, Freddy. We’re going to be fine.”
But the townspeople did not need their snow shovelled. They’d predicted the snow and pre-gathered wood. Clothes had been washed and dried. Wind had swept the porches.
Old Widow Wagner did need kindling chopped and her fire stoked, but Frida refused to take the spare skillet as payment. It wasn’t a spare.
Daylight waned early and Frida wondered if it was better to return to her sisters with nothing, or to impose upon the Beckers after all.
Respite to husbands the weather may send, but huswives’ affairs have never an end.
The boys and Farmer Becker would be inside. Mrs Becker would be sewing, making candles, carding wool and stuffing feathers into pillows. Little sister Millie would be prancing around cracking jokes, serving regular bowls of broth.
Frida lingered at the oak tree near the fork. If Beauty were here right now she’d encourage Frida to flit across the meadow, if only to catch a glimpse of Walter’s dimples. Indeed, Beauty would be fortified by that. After a long, cold day of disappointments, Frida would sit across from Walter and accept a cup of something. But she wouldn’t beg for a job, because she knew Mrs Becker would give her one that didn’t need doing.
She found the Beckers as she expected to find them, though not cradling cups of broth—she had blundered into a sit-down meal. From the doorway she noticed a table laid with an elaborate dinner: chicken and gravy and roast pumpkin.
“Sorry,” she said, backing away. “I’m interrupting.”
“You’re coming inside.” Mrs Becker strong-armed Frida into the farmhouse then shooed little Millie off her stool.
That’s how Frida found herself wedged between Walter Becker and his big brother Theo. Without touching elbows, Frida felt the heat come off them. It was quite something.
The warmth made her nose drip. She wiped discreetly and felt her face turn red.
Mrs Becker placed a Christmas-heaped plate before her, though Christmas had been and gone.
“Get it et,” she urged. “And don’t you feel bad. Despite these hollow-leg lads, I’ve got us plenty of scraps. We’ll send you home with dinner for your sisters.”
Frida had nothing to say to that. Nothing but tears lately. But not here, please not here.
“Go on then, before it gets cold.”
Frida ate as daintily as she could, checking Mr Becker now and then. The farmer may not approve of his wife gifting good food to town-girls. He bit down on his pipe and read his book. Eventually he caught Frida’s glance, and returned a reassuring nod.
“Mother’s a fine cook, ain’t she.”
Little Millie made jokes, too impatient to be waiting for answers. “Why are horses so disagreeable? Because they always say nay to everything!”
Frida took note of Walter’s dimples, though she could really only see one, sitting this close from this angle. She’d think on that dimple later.
Mrs Becker walked Frida all the way home. And for her return journey, she took a dog and a son. Walter was quick to volunteer. After a full day inside he must be suffering cabin fever. He also carried the food, stuffed under his coat, keeping it warm.
“When does that father of yours get back?” Mrs Becker asked as the three of them stamped across the snowy field. “Or is that an unknown?”
“We don’t know, ma’am.”
“By crikey, by crikey.” Mrs Becker seemed to be biting her tongue.
Elvira and Beauty were waiting near the door, hungry and anxious, but they’d kept the fire stoked. They ate and they danced and they all fell into bed, keeping each other extra warm.
“Walter’s dimples! Walter’s dimples!” Beauty propped herself onto one elbow. Her eyes shone in the firelight.
“I said goodnight!” Frida wanted to enjoy her own thoughts in peace.
Then sensible Elvira put in her two-penny’s worth. “Mrs Becker would make a fine mother-in-law.”
Elvira was right. With a mother like Mrs Becker, Frida would learn how to make smooth gravy and herb stuffing. She’d study how to sew something more elaborate than tunics. Mrs Becker probably had all sorts of tricks up her sleeve; secret, housewifely tricks which elude girls without mothers of their own.
“What about Walter’s older brother?” Elvira asked, talking through a yawn.
“What about him?” though Frida knew exactly.
“He has dimples too, doesn’t he.”
“And a fetching smile.”
Frida rolled over and draped an arm across Beauty. Of the three Schroder daughters, only Beauty measured up. But she was too young yet to marry. At this rate, the sisters may not last that long.
For now she could dream. Frida closed her eyes. She saw Mrs Becker before her, welcoming her inside, plying her with food. She worked beside Mrs Becker in her generous kitchen, peeling a mountain of potatoes, chatting about the weather.
She did not think of dimples. The image of Walter’s face made her cold and shivery, and not in a pleasant way.
The Becker brothers were lovely; their parents had made them so.
If only they were ugly as well.
Beautiful Walter came knocking the next afternoon and produced a limp chicken from a sack.
“Mother found her frozen,” he said, though it wasn’t frozen at all. Later, Frida saw it had been twisted at the throat.
He returned the following day with half a pumpkin. Frida invited him in. Her sisters retreated to the back room, keeping their giggles in check. Frida sipped tea with anxious glances out the front window. It would be just her luck for Father to turn up now, when boys are off-limits, even nice ones.
On the third day Frida wore her good dress in anticipation of Walter’s visit. She checked her face in Beauty’s hand mirror, and in the shadows she liked what she saw.
“Why are you ready for church?” Walter asked, brushing her fingertips, accepting the tea. A genuine question for a Friday. But standing in the light of the window, Frida felt ridiculous. She wished she hadn’t bothered.
Later, she threw herself onto the bed. Frida wasn’t normally melodramatic. “This is stupid, stupid, stupid,” she yelled, muffled by the pillow.
Elvira rubbed Frida’s back. “Don’t trust your own eyes, dear sister. You’re plenty good as you are. See yourself through Walter’s.”
But Frida could not listen. “Could he ever love me, looking like this?” Though it wasn’t hers to bury, she wished that ugly mirror would find its way to the bottom of their dead winter garden.
And when Walter arrived the following day with a bag of oats, Frida sent Beauty to greet him instead.
A man provides for his family. If he can’t provide for his family, he’s not a man. If not a man then what? Some kind of beast?
Bernhard Schroder was homeward bound. His horse carried a bolt of cloth for Frida. She could design her own froufrou dress. He’d bought a pair of boots for Elvira. The boots were not well-made but they sharpened at the toe in a feminine manner. Interfering Frida would despise his choice, which is why he picked them.
Bernhard had thus provided for two of his daughters. Women don’t understand this—neither of his wives had understood and nor would his daughters—manliness is an honour and a privilege to be earned, not some badge you get to keep forever. By Christ’s bones, a man proves himself worthy year after year after godforsaken year, trudging through snow with an ailing pack horse in tow, one heavy foot in front of the other, laden down with hard-won gifts.
Now and then, a man is sorely tested. Take now, for example: alone, thirsty and famished on a lonesome prairie, trudging headlong into a goddamn blizzard. He’d tried eating snow. After the initial shock to his remaining teeth, he started with the shakes. He should have purchased matches. Damn those shoes and that bolt of useless cloth.
Bernhard was starting to worry for the horse. He wasn’t worried for himself, though his poor daughters would weep on his grave. Not a pleasant thought. So when the castle revealed its parch mark in the haze, and when he understood he had not in fact frozen solid and floated skyward, he wondered what a man would do in this particular situation.
A man would swallow his pride.
In this weather, even the guards were under shelter. He led his horse through the open gates, along the palace road. He happened upon stables and tied his pack horse next to the king’s stallions. Not even a stable boy could be seen. Just huge black sinewy beasts, steam issuing forth from their nostrils. The stallions seemed to glare.
“Even if I had a carrot, you wouldn’t get it.”
He walked towards the palace itself, guided by the lanterns. Though the grounds were deserted, a team of lamplighters had recently passed through. He checked for their footprints, but snow had fallen since. Then he saw the flames were not lanterns but pit fires. He wondered at their purpose. Perhaps they lit the way for wayfaring strangers lost in the snow. This was a pleasing thought. Bernhard redoubled his enthusiasm and headed for the fires.
He almost ran into the wall. He’d never seen the like—he didn’t see it now, exactly, rather he kicked it, hard against his toe—a palisade of glass. He’d seen sheet glass before but only in houses—small panes with distortions, and flecks which never wiped out. This glass was perfect. He touched it, and didn’t leave a print. He breathed on it, and failed to leave fog.
He followed the wall as it curved. As he walked the fires beyond grew larger, and he saw what lay inside the giant diaphanous hall: a brilliant summer garden. And wouldn’t you know it, roses. Roses of every colour.
Now he wondered if he really had died after all, because this seemed a lot like Heaven. No, surely not. Deep in his gut, he never really expected to reach the pearly gates.
Instead he reached a door in the glass. Even its hinges were see-through. He pushed on the door and was relieved to gain immediate entry. Inside, the garden was warm as a summer day.
What a fine coincidence. Too much coincidence. Completely unbelievable. This must be Providence, looking after him, restoring his image in his daughters’ eyes. A snow blizzard had led Bernhard Schroder to this magnificent rose garden and he would return to his girls with an actual red rose in hand. A fragrant one, at that. In the middle of winter! Beauty would be overjoyed and Frida would be stunned into silence.
Bernhard inhaled deeply. The entire garden was redolent with rose perfume. It was almost too much. He’d traded colognes before. They tended to leave him with a headache, but now he floated.
He floated among the bushes, mindful of thorns. He didn’t need extra holes in his coat, not with that weather outside. He selected a bloom the shade of healthy blush. He mustn’t squash it before making it home. Three long days of travel stretched before him yet. He opened his rucksack and placed the rose in his empty tuck box.
It was then he caught sight of the shadow. The creature crept up from behind and darkened his path towards home.
Beauty’s big sisters were out past cock-shut. Mrs Becker had come instead of Walter today. She dropped a portion of mutton onto the table and didn’t wait for thanks.
“Would you render me a favour, my lovelies?”
Frida said she’d love to make up numbers for the matrons’ choir. Elvira wouldn’t mind tagging along.
“You’re welcome to join us, Beauty,” Mrs Becker continued, “though your little voice is yet to mellow.”
Beauty knew she was no vocalist. No matter; she’d be safe on her own for an hour and a quarter. “I plan to catalogue seeds. And someone should save the fire.”
Alone in the cottage, Beauty sewed tiny bags from cloth scraps, and kept an eye on the stew.
Then she heard a horse. She peeked through the front window.
An unfamiliar man dismounted. His wild beard twitched in the wind.
Beauty ducked from view. She wished her sisters were here. At least she’d bolted the door.
But then she heard her own nick-name, and it was their father’s booming voice.
“Beauty! Oh, Beauty!”
She put on her coat and received him outside. She let herself be gathered into his arms.
“Guess what! You’ll never believe what I found.” Bernhard presented his tuck box.
He’d collected a specimen from the mountain highroad. The cutting was a winter rose; shrivelled and brown and sharp. It may have started out pink. Beauty could not classify it further, though she knew the hellebore family was not related to the rose. Like herself, they carried their own deceptive nick-name.
The box emitted a strong aroma, hereby ruined for transportation of tuck. Wild forest perfume had seeped right into the wood. Unlike a true rose, the hellebore does not smell. This was cheap, trade fair cologne.
“You may keep the box for your jewels,” said the merchant.
“Jewels?” Beauty owned no such thing. Unless he meant that glass-encrusted hand mirror he bought for her once. But that was too big for a box.
Father reached into his pockets and poked around, aiming for suspense. He brandished mysteries inside closed fists. “A pearl necklace for Frida, rubies for Elvira, a diamond ring for you, my love.” He waved his fists like gifts.
The tides must have turned. Their missing ships must have sailed back.
“Whatever can you mean, Father?”
He was making the most of this game. Beauty must now feign disappointment at the knotted handkerchief, at the pebbles, at the acorns.
“Where oh where are my real treasures?” Beauty spoke in the required tones, all the while searching her father’s face. But she couldn’t read him this time.
He seemed to think he’d hit upon his punchline. He was always so happy to see her, and seemed happy now. But also frantic. He kept glancing back at the road.
“Where are your sisters?” He snapped the tuck box shut.
Beauty had never noticed this before, how her father referred to ‘her sisters’.
“Your older daughters, father.” Dodging his question.
“Yes, yes, where is that Frida? And Elvira? Is she much recovered?”
“They’ll be home soon.”
Beauty bit her lip. “Come in for meat, Father.” She took Bernhard by the hand, hoping he’d settle.
He seemed to burn with hunger. His nostrils flared like something rabid. Surely he smelt the hearty aroma wafting from the cottage.
But Bernhard would not go inside. He gripped Beauty tight around the waist and pressed his hairy mouth to her ear.
“Listen,” he mumbled. “I stumbled upon a special place; a castle in the sky, so magnificent you won’t believe your eyes.”
Beauty pulled back. Her father’s breath carried the chemical stench of a lengthy fast.
But he would not release her.
“I’m being followed,” he whispered. “I shook them off for now. A prince and his stallions. He’ll make a fine husband, Beauty. Your features will balance his nicely.”
Beauty did not like this game. “What are you talking about, Father? What prince? Where?”
“Coming, coming. I made a promise. He permits me to bid you farewell in private.”
“You’re scaring me. Please, stop. Please. Come inside for sustenance.”
“No no no no no,” Bernhard crooned, pressing one cold finger to her lips. “Don’t be scared, my love. All the riches in the world await you!”
Beauty did not want his acorns.
“You love to garden, don’t you? You spend all summer among plants. Well, my sweet sweet pea, do I have a garden for you! A beautiful garden burst full of roses. Just as you wanted, all year round, without interruption.”
Beauty felt herself wilting.
“You make me so happy, my love. So, so happy. Do you love me, Beauty? Do you?”
Weaker and weaker.
She imagined herself in a garden, as she often did. Though the garden felt desolate now.
Who would come knocking at this hour? Livvy Becker thought first of the iron rod. She’d never had cause to use it, but it must be here somewhere, wedged far beneath the mattress.
“Lambert!” she hissed.
The man was a heavy sleeper, hence the rod.
“Bert! Rouse yourself! Someone’s come a-pounding at the door!”
“There’s girls outside, ma!”
Of course. The boys were still up, playing cards. It wasn’t really that late. But late enough for a chill winter’s night.
“Girls? Which girls?” she called.
Livvy heard the door creak open, then Theo’s voice, Walter’s soothing. That sounded like young Frida, only this time she was frantic.
Oh, but Elvira.
Elvira had sung without vigour today. Livvy knotted her hank of greying hair into a rough bun and scurried to the anteroom. She was relieved—and confused—to see Elvira with Frida, alive and well, clinging on to her arm.
“Did something terrible happen, my dears? Come in, come in!”
Frida was close to tears. “It’s Beauty. She’s disappeared.”
“What do you mean, disappeared?”
Frida sounded hollow. “She wasn’t home when we got back from choir.”
“Oh, no.” Livvy refused to believe this. “No, that can’t be.”
Not on Livvy’s watch. Not with the older two borrowed for an hour and a bit. Nothing bad can possibly happen when you’re praising the good Lord in church.
Not unless the devil was watching the cottage of course, stalking that beautiful little girl like prey, waiting for the right moment.
“We’ve checked everywhere,” Frida continued. “She’s not in the garden, not in the graveyard. We searched half the world.”
“The well and able are all out looking?”
Frida and Elvira nodded.
“Is anything gone from the house?”
“Just her coat.”
“Well now, that be good news.” Lambert had stepped into overclothes and now reached for matches. “No coat means she had presence of mind to put it on.”
“Now’s no time for smoking, Lambert,” Livvy scolded. But then she was forced to apologise. Her husband was reaching for lanterns.
With a hacking cough and worrisome pallor, Elvira must stay with young Millie inside the Beckers’ farmhouse. Livvy would not back down on this point.
“We’ll scurry back just as soon as we find her. Millie love, boil a bowl of water and be generous with the drops.”
The party of five and two wise farm dogs stepped out towards town. Livvy linked her arm in Frida’s, taking Elvira’s place for now. This gesture caused Frida to weep and Livvy let her, since it didn’t slow them down.
Livvy and Frida kept pace with the boys, striding wide on either side. Lambert forged ahead with the good lantern. At times like these, Livvy felt grateful for her three strapping menfolk.
Not that this exact emergency had happened before. Vagrants took food sometimes, though Livvy suspected wildlife comprised the bulk of the culprits. This township lay en route to nowhere; strangers were rare. Newcomers were noticed.
Plus, snow had fallen all afternoon and since stopped. There would be foot tracks. Everything was in their favour. By logic alone they’d find Beauty safe and waiting at the cottage. She’ll have been gathering seedlings for her collection or some such. She shouldn’t be out in this chill, but with two mothers dead and a father off on jaunts it’s a wonder the girls had not run completely wild.
Livvy wanted to reassure Frida. She wanted to list the many reasons not to worry. The girl had not been kidnapped by strangers. She knew that for certain.
So what was that gnawing in the pit of her stomach?
Livvy never did feel at ease with long silences.
Pfft, pfft, pfft, went their footsteps, across the snowy field.
On the edge of town they were startled by two of the Fischer boys, wielding some kind of pole. The dogs growled and barked.
But it was just a bolt of cloth.
“We found this in the trees.”
Frida knew nothing of it. The cotton print was well preserved, but anyone could have dropped it.
The cottage lights were on, which raised Libby’s hopes. But Frida and Elvira had left them alight. Beauty was nowhere inside.
Libby searched every nook and cranny. She checked under the table, threw off the bedclothes, tossed brooms and rags from the cupboard. She upended the large basin. She even opened the oven.
The men roamed outside. Dogs made the difference.
Theo offered the artefact for Frida’s inspection.
“Father owns a tuck box just like that.”
“Did he take it on his travels?”
“He did. I packed it with bread and cheese.”
“Then I guess someone else dropped his.”
Livvy grabbed the box from her son. Something smelt rotten. Sweet, but sickly.
Frida should sit. She was starting to hyperventilate.
“Someone… something’s been to the house!” she breathed.
Walter confirmed it. “There’s hoof prints fresh out front.”
Livvy shot Walter a warning look. That was no thing to announce, not in front of a distressed older sister.
“Sorry,” he said.
Frida lurched towards the door. “We’ll follow the trail! Beauty’s been lured away! I know it!”
Sadly, Livvy knew it too.
She knew his type. She knew the underside of this base, bastardly rogue. She’d seen the merchant of make-believe take his young daughter’s hand. She kept watch as she sang, diminuendo, from one pew over in church. She’d seen the fingers whiten, and then the girl’s bracelet of red.
“Gather your things,” Livvy ordered, once men and dogs were gone. “Every single damn thing.”
Frida remained confused, so Livvy ransacked the cottage. She hadn’t brought a sack but there was little to salvage; three Sunday tunics and a hand mirror. On second thoughts, she’d leave the mirror.
She’d leave the tunics, too. She’d leave every abject memory to rot with the beast, forever trying to escape from his claustrophobic cage.
Maybe, in time, Beauty might manage the same.
The Awlings The Elves and the Shoemaker
Jobst Schuster did not believe in magic. He wished he did. If he believed in magic, he might not think he was losing his mind.
Dare he cut the leather tonight? If he wanted this devilment to stop, he knew what to do. He would not leave soles atop his workbench.
“Will you come up to bed, dear husband?” Gertrude gave him a start.
“Oh my love, don’t creep up like that.”
“Ha! Is a wife not allowed to run a dainty fingertip along her husband’s spine?”
Jobst gathered himself. “It’s been a long week.”
“And do you mean to work all night? I hate to see you like this. We have enough to eat, Jobst, and plenty besides for a Christmas feast. You needn’t work yourself to the bone.” She rubbed his chest with one free hand. In the other she dangled a lantern. “Come up to warm me.”
He’d tell her. He’d been wanting to tell her. “I did not make these shoes.” He whispered, as if the walls might judge him.
“What do you mean, you didn’t make the shoes?” Gertrude held her light to the beautiful footwear rayed along the ledge. She’d admired them greatly when she noticed the new styles—outrageous styles, inspired by faraway lands. Her husband had created a novel fashion of brogues, with extra tassels near the tongue. He’d embroidered mules in the French way, and an Italian pair in yellow silk with shining buckles. Gertrude favoured the peacock blue with three-zoll heels, but knew they must be sold. She’d no place to wear them herself.
Most impressive of all was a new kind of slipper, crafted with a pointed, up-curved toe, reminiscent of local roofs. This new product would find its own fame. Shoe enthusiasts would come from far and wide. Once the king and queen saw these slippers, the palace would source their footwear locally. This new fashion would change the town. It would change Jobst Schuster’s dwindling fortune.
Gertrude repeated her question. “Who else would’ve crafted all this beautiful footwear?”
“I know it sounds mad,” Jobst said. “Sit down for this. Please, dear wife, join me here on the bench.”
Gertrude rolled her eyes a little. This much was visible via lamplight. But she sat, and she listened, tight-lipped, smiling patiently.
“Someone’s been breaking into our house,” Jobst explained, stuttering a little. “They mean us no harm—not in the violent sense—so don’t fret.”
“What are you moithering about? Breaking in! It’s lack of shut-eye, that’s what this is.”
“I’m serious, Gert. Someone—or somethings—visit my workshop at night. While we doze upstairs, they use my tools and my lasts to craft their own shoes. I don’t know how long the break-ins have been going on, but last month the intruders started leaving product behind. These shoes are their doing.”
Gertrude laughed. “A new breed of reverse burglar? Breaking into Jobst Schuster’s workshop without dislodging the door, working by cloak of dark on masterworks then leaving them as alms? He hee! Oh Jobst, I told you to spin some fresh yarns, and you’ve come through for me. You really have! Who says marriage gets stale?”
“But Gert, I don’t remember making these shoes. Who’s been making the shoes?”
Gertrude noticed the hint of desperation in his voice. “Remember you used to sleepwalk, back when we were newlyweds? Maybe it’s that, only sleep-working. Now here’s an admission. I sometimes dream I’m scrubbing floors. I must be a very boring sort of person,” she added with a sigh. “Come upstairs and liven me up.”
Attempts at confession were hopeless. But Jobst had assuaged his conscience, for now. He’d admitted to his wife that he had not, willingly, wakefully, crafted these magnificent shoes. He had not morphed into a master designer by night, as well as master shoemaker by day.
Surely this wasn’t God’s doing, either. Jobst had done nothing special to deserve this. To test this idea, he’d skipped mass. Still the shoes came.
If only he felt good about these mysterious gifts. He was due a bit of luck. The Schuster finances had been dwindling for years, through no fault of his own. The more Jobst worked the less he earned. The value of footwear had simply plummeted. If he’d predicted this trend as a young man he’d never have continued the trade of his forefathers. He’d have established connections as a merchant. Yes, those travelling bloodsuckers had done well—very well, some of them, mastering no craft of their own.
“I’ll be up in a jiffy.” Jobst smiled wanly, attempting to match the mood of his wife.
She lingered in hallway shadow. “When you decide to let go of these beauties we’ll pay three-year worth of bills. You’re a genius, dear husband. I always knew you could make shoes with your eyes closed.”
Half the light retreated upstairs, along with his night-gowned wife. Against the glow of a single lamp, Jobst sensed his workshop housed secrets. Perhaps the walls were permeable, admitting master ghosts. It harboured nooks and crannies, as yet undiscovered by him. But even with the midnight moon peeping in, the workshop looked ordinary—a modest room with wooden floor and panelled walls. But there was always, always, more underneath.
He knew this from a lifetime of measuring feet. The most beautiful shoes, the silkiest of stockings, concealed feet of goblin proportions—painfully knobbed, smelling of bad cheese. This applied equally to the desirable young ladies of the town, who hid discoloured toenails and calloused heels inside Jobst Schuster’s well-crafted footwear; footwear which struck him lately as clodhoppers of a cobbler’s apprentice.
Jobst yawned and made a final check of the workshop. He swung his lantern and spooked himself with his own shadow. His eyes raked over the tools, arranged as they always were, and as he always found them. His fingers waggled above the buttoner. There were so many superstitions about shoes—if he believed any of them he was obliged to believe them all, and then his work life would be one long, ridiculous ritual. He’d never get anything made. But tonight he succumbed to the small, superstitious side of himself. He needed to sleep well, for he hadn’t in weeks. So he hung the shoe-buttoner on a nail above the door, obscured by the festive wreath. This wasn’t to keep out a burglar, as such. Gertrude was right—this was a reverse burglar—an early, unwanted Saint Nikolaus, to a house where children had grown and gone. So he rubbed his grey chin and thought for a moment. Then he reached to realign the metal ward, affixing it upside down.
Still the sleep-burglars came. They came first in his dreams, as they had all month, blunting his knives and cackling. They passed his precious lasts from one to the other, throwing the wooden feet as children throw balls. The creatures were the size of children, but naked as babes. And their faces! Their faces were tooled with the lines of unconditioned leather. These creatures had accumulated several lifetimes of mastery. Not once in those lives had they washed their filthy mitts.
The eldest smoked a pipe. Jobst couldn’t see from the peephole that it was his own pipe—he simply knew that it was. In his dream he had etched that peephole using one fingernail, scraping through an interior door which wasn’t normally there.
Then the door proved illusory, even inside the dream, and the elves—brownies, sprites—whatever they were—they saw him, standing with them in abject nakedness.
“Master, he’s looking!”
“Then poke his eyes out!”
That’s when they came for him, wielding his awl as a weapon against him. The fierce little pipe-smoker scooped out his eye, as a spoon dips into porridge. Jobst howled, startling his slumbrous wife.
He awoke to the illusion of safety.
“There, there,” Gertrude crooned, stroking his back. “I’m really starting to worry now, dear.”
He crouched for long minutes on the bedroom floor, palms to eyeballs, waiting for lightning to strike.
Jobst rose early and peered through the curtains down into the street.
“What are you up to now, my addled husband?”
So far he’d seen nothing new—the boy with the produce, the youngsters with bundles of ruten for kindling. The women with the horses, the girl and her bucket; the old men with the axes, the young man with the sled.
“We need to call the doctor,” Gertrude said over breakfast. “If you won’t listen to me, perchance you’ll listen to him. You were up in the small hours, toiling away. I noticed.”
“I was briefly bothered by nightmare. But did you not hear me snoring beside you?”
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You’re working too hard.”
“Come, now. How would we pay a doctor?”
“Sell some footwear!” Gertrude spluttered as if everything were obvious. “Put the pretty ones on display! It’s time to let them go, dear. Those shoes are fit for royalty. They’ll fetch a pretty price.” She took a spoonful of porridge from the edge of her bowl.
Jobst wished she wouldn’t scoop so.
She blew gently. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to take oats with cream again?”
Jobst nodded, in genuine agreement. He missed little luxuries like cream, but more than that, he looked forward to getting rid of the ill-begotten shoes. He could not explain why, but he knew they were coal from Krampus. Those shoes would curse this house.
Ah, what nonsense. Jobst did not believe in Krampus.
So he sold a pair of the fine boots, freshly waxed. They boasted wing tips of soft, tooled leather. They’d appeared that very night—four pairs in total. It was Jobst’s work to locate them. Sometimes he found shoes near the front entrance, alongside his own. He’d located a few more under his workbench. Sometimes they lurked beneath the kitchen table. One of these days he’d step out of bed and into a pair of malevolent slip-ons. He couldn’t bear the thought of them creeping in there, flop, flop, flop, like disembodied feet. But this morning’s offerings were found in the downstairs closet, kicked in hastily, as if someone had hurried out before dawn. The craftsmanship was fine, as ever.
Old Man Krause knocked early, before the wind stirred up. He was thrilled at the early Christmas gift to himself. “Such careful stitches! You’ve been blessed with the eyes of eternal youth! You’ve outdone yourself, Schuster. I’ll be talk of the town!”
Jobst accepted the man’s money but tried to decline the generous Christmas bonus. He eyed his faithful customer as he disappeared down Main Street. Passersby had turned overnight snow into slush. Jobst had wasted the early morning, peering out from behind the safety of glass. He should have ventured outside to examine the earliest footprints. He was starting to imagine the wingtips had walked themselves along the road. But how had they entered his house?
Meanwhile, Old Man Krause made his own light footprints, swinging his arms as though twenty years younger. Passersby examined his gleaming feet, then looked in wonder to the shoemaker’s sign. Jobst ducked away from the window and pressed himself to the wall—panting, pale, hand on heart.
Jobst was in no mind for the workshop. Normally he loved it in there, especially with the fire burning bright, on howling winter days such as these.
Instead he donned his thickest layers, only to find he could not bend down. He sat on the fitting stool and requested help from Gertrude to fasten his own boots.
“What have you gone and done with the buttoner?” Gertrude could not put her hand on it. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, Jobst. What’s it doing, up behind there? I hope you’re off to see the doctor.”
“Indeed I am, my love.”
But Jobst Schuster had no such plans. The doctor was good for broken bones and dressing wounds. There was no soothing tonic for maddening mysteries.
He set out into the cold, shivering, even inside his layers, which were clean but worn and thin. His boots were better than his clothes. A shoemaker is his own best signage. He’d considered claiming a pair of last night’s wingtips for himself. If he wore those magical boots into town every man would flock to him, requesting the very same. But he couldn’t guarantee the footwear would keep coming. Nor could he guarantee the boots would remain in their solid, earthly form. For all he knew, they would poof! into vapour. So he did not wear the magical boots. He regretted selling Old Man Krause the magical boots.
A lifetime of making shoes had ill-prepared Jobst for detective work. Still, he must give it a go. He slushed towards the market square, in his watertight but unremarkable footwear. Here he would cast a shoemaker’s eye over any new men in town. He had mind-sculpted the figure of his enemy: A well-trained but destitute journeyman, who rode into town and never left. This mysterious young master was taunting Jobst with his own superior wares, sneaking in to use his tools and highlighting his inadequacies. This, he knew, was ridiculous. He knew it even as he thought it. This reassured him. He must not be truly mad.
Journeymen were few at this time of year, when the outdoor trades wound down. Still, a handful of travelling tradesmen had turned up for recruitment—desperate looking characters. All wore scuffed footwear, down at the heel. Not a cobbler between them, that much was sure. One lad with dirty fingernails found temporary work with the butcher, to help with Christmas deliveries. Another few went with the turner; the baker remained short staffed.
“Can you make plaited stollen, Herr Schuster?” The baker leaned back, arms folded, eyeing the shoemaker up and down.
Jobst resented the question, though surely not meant in earnest. “I’m not here looking for work.”
“There’s nothing can be done,” sighed the baker. “I’ve seen the tiny perfect stitches on that factory-made footwear. I passed Old Man Krause just before. Beautiful new wingtips. Those factory machines work like magic. Soon the robots will be making our bread. Artisans can’t compete.”
Jobst knew that he would never touch robot-made bread. He conjured the image of a mechanical man, mixing dough with arms of steel. Another nearby tended a hot oven, standing too close to the flame. Might those machine-men wear painted faces, with burning hot coals for eyes? Next he thought of machine-men squeaking away, all night long, crafting beautiful boots. The baker had set him thinking about factories. ‘Elves’ indeed. Of course those beautiful shoes were factory made.
“Well, then. Merry Christmas, Herr Schuster!”
The baker has realised the shoemaker is no longer listening, absorbed in some terrible dream.
Jobst Schuster knew every street of this small town. Still, he must have missed something. Shoes do not materialise out of thin air. The answer to his mystery must lie within the city bounds. Therefore, he reasoned most rationally, if he walked the streets with his eyes wide open, scanning every building, searching every window, he would find some clue to the shoes. He may even sniff them out. He knew the smell of polished leather.
Starting from the north-eastern corner, Jobst trudged a sequential path through the network of roads. Up, down and across. Up, down and across.
When the heavens opened to thundersnow, he wished to return to Gertrude. But the dark mystery of preceding weeks had stolen the safety of home.
Perhaps someone felt sorry for him. A factory worker knew that the old shoemaker would soon be run out of business. They were donating factory-made wares to Jobst in the night, hoping he’d assume it fairytale magic rather than pitiful charity.
He knew he should be grateful. The obligation to feel grateful made charity worse. These so-called gifts felt more like taunts.
The streets seemed to whisper a shoddy semaphore:
Jobst Schuster is past his prime.
His stitches are wobbly and big.
His fingers tremble.
And his arms are too short
For his eyes.
A cruel commentary on his old man’s long-sightedness. Jobst could swear he heard the whisperings, and hated the choristers above, singing at him from high windows. Then he realised he’d composed the ditty himself, his tuneful opponents wholly imagined.
Jobst examined every face along his calculated journey through town. In cheery greetings he listened for foreign tones. He eyed all the footwear. But on a day like this, boots sank disguised into slush. And people hurried. His eyes wouldn’t focus and then the feet were gone.
He met no one suspicious; he suspected them all.
The streets grew less familiar. Houses leaned into each other, as if huddling for warmth. The plague had malingered in these parts, taking every family. For years no one came here at all. The walls were cracked, the roofs had holes, and now the wind whistled through them.
Despite the terrible history of these adjoining streets, Jobst hadn’t realised the degree of resettlement. A gaggle of red-cheeked children played near the crossroads. They wore few layers of clothing, as if to show Jobst how poorly they were fed.
As the shoemaker approached the children paused their game.
Jobst fingered the seven silver coins in his pocket, earned—or garnered—via wingtips sold to Old Man Krause. He could give these children the coins as a Christmas treat. Indeed, he’d be glad to be rid of his ill-gotten gains.
He made a quick headcount. Seven coins, nine children. Three girls and six boys. There was no way to divvy this fairly. Besides, the coins were probably unlucky.
Jobst Schuster did not believe in magic, nor in superstition. But at this very moment he could see how people might. He strode past the children with his head down.
“Merry Christmas!” One boy called after him, in a last ditch request for attention.
Apart from anything else, Jobst Schuster may need these coins for himself. His eyes were failing, he had few savings and cheap factory shoes would ruin his business. This one time, for a final Christmas treat, he would buy Gertrude a magnificent dress before returning home at dusk.
But first Jobst must trudge to the shuddery fringe of town. He had walked the city streets with no reward. Now he must approach the men who treat raw hide from the beast. Thus far, Jobst had avoided the tannery. He purchased fine leathers from an intermediary—the rough but amiable fellmonger, who carried about him only the faintest whiff of death. The tanners would understand a shoemaker’s predicament. Perhaps they would stop selling to factories, to protect local business.
Oh, this stench was something else.
The devil’s aroma grew stronger until it seemed he was wading through it. This could put you off dinners for life. But familiar analogies had their limits; the tannery smelt of gravy as feet smelt of cheese—not really, not even close. Words could not describe the stink which took hold of him now, grabbing at his throat, jerking his jowls and making him retch.
“Could be worse,” he muttered. This was true. If he’d had any lunch he would have lost it. And if it weren’t a freezing cold day, this tannery stench would’ve knocked him down dead.
In hell there is no need for fences, no need for guards. No one ever wants in. And once you’re in, you’ll never see out.
No one seemed to notice him skulk onto the premises, though he felt out of place wearing a coat. The tanners wore little, even in snow. They even worked up a sweat. Two young, sinewy men in short pants waded in an odoriferous vat. They wrestled with a pole to remove a large hide. They poked the beast in the belly and hefted it from its hell bath.
Dripping with the evil liquid, one of the tanners noticed their visitor. Perhaps he knew how unattractive he smelt to ordinary folk, for he stayed put, on the other side of the vat. “What’s your business?” he called to Jobst, through a twisted maw showing no visible teeth.
“I’ve come to speak with the foreman!”
“Foreman?” the men chuckled. “What you want with him?”
Jobst wished his story could be condensed to a pithy sentence. But it could not. “Private matters.”
“Oh, private matters!” the men guffawed, enjoying their rare visitor. One of them reached for a curved blade, handled at both ends. He brandished it in the flourish of a knight in stinking armour, then set about de-hairing the hide, deftly, dangerously.
The other fleshed a different pelt. Fat rolled off it in deft ripples, but still the blade clogged. Jobst conjured the thought of Gert making bread and wished he had not. The fat-slayer gave his weapon a reflexive flick. A piece of the terrible stuff flew across the vat, to land on Schuster’s boot. This was deliberate, of course, and impressive in the most awful of ways.
Jobst turned away lest his face become target. Across the yard he witnessed another part of the process—three men, younger still, reaching into pails. They rubbed fistfuls of brown to soften different hides, smearing and slopping and chatting. If they hadn’t seared their nostrils they’d have kept their mouths shut, but to Schuster it was unmistakable—now he understood it was a base note of dung which set off the prevailing odour—an evil chimera of shit, mixed from various farm animals. He almost lost his stomach juices.
In the nick of time, he turned away from the dung-rubbers.
“Listen!” he called to the first men, while coughing into his sleeve. He took all seven coins from his pocket—the silver he’d gotten from Old Man Krause.
“So who will tell me?” Jobst displayed the glint in his palms. “What new rogues have been buying your soft pelts?”
The workers were listening now. Others appeared from inside a sorry shed, where they did Lord-knows-what with Hell-knows-who. Now the unmitigated stench of rotting flesh—and piss pot—and dung—intermingled with the more familiar odour of stale human sweat.
A new man stepped out from the shed. “Ask me again for my client list,” he said, menacing, chin tilted low.
“I come in peace,” Schuster replied. “I’m the local shoemaker. Jobst Schuster, from the other end of town.”
“I know who you are. And I know why you’re here. You’ve braved the stink to tell us you’re cutting out your middle-man. Listen to me, fool. Hard workers of this town look out for each other. We skip no part of the process—not in our craft, not in our dealings. Got it?”
“Then why are you selling to faraway factories?”
The foreman changed his posture to look even more menacing. Jobst had not believed this possible.
“We do not sell to factories.”
Jobst doubted that.
“Get outta here! Go on, git! Back to the sweet end of town!”
Jobst didn’t need telling twice.
As he left the tannery, Jobst Schuster wondered if his nose would ever come good. The white world outside smelt of nothing. He scurried as fast as his boots would carry him, which wasn’t fast at all. His legs wouldn’t stride as they used to, and now the snow had settled. He lifted his knees to plough through it, breathing hard. The exercise did him good.
He had seen things he wished he had not. The stench had seeped into his marrow. It was a mistake to have come here. The tanners despised him as he feared them in turn; until now, such raw reciprocity had never crossed his mind. He’d never enfleshed the tannery workers. To him they’d been carved of wood—wooden lasts in the shape of men, rounded at the edges with concave slopes for features. But now his sculptures wore faces, each distinct as his own. Without those twisted faces, that rotten stench, there would be no beautiful shoes.
Dark was setting in. He must look on the bright side. He still had his silver, with more to come. The dressmaker might still be open.
Jobst made sure to check his tail but no one followed, thank goodness. The tannery road was deserted, but for one lone figure approaching from town. Jobst squinted to make out a smallish man; not a threat. But as the figure approached he saw it was a girl, and not more than twelve.
When they crossed paths he knew his senses had recovered, for he smelt what she lugged in her pails. She’d done her day’s work, even in snow, and her pails were heaped with dung. Her hands were dark with the filth, and she’d smeared it across her face, perhaps while wiping her nose. Her arms were too long for her coat.
She regarded Jobst as if he might pounce; or perhaps it was general hate. This small person had accumulated several lifetimes of misery.
He’d seen this girl with the bucket many times before. But now, after a day of practised vigilance, Jobst examined the girl’s feet. Her boots had no toes. The uppers had been chopped away to allow for growth. Those were swollen, and dangerously purpled from cold.
He stopped in his tracks despite himself, and kept vigil even after she passed. She turned to check him also. Their eyes met, briefly, awkwardly. Under a flash of lightning Jobst saw himself in her face. For what was the difference between them? They each eked a living around this rotten hell-yard; she at one end, he at the other. He thought he had seen the stone-bruised, corn-ridden, bunion-rubbed miseries of this world but now he knew that he hadn’t. He thought he had touched the edge of poverty, yet tonight he’d return to a healthy wife who had stoked the fire at home.
The dressmaker re-opened for Jobst. She answered to frantic rapping, and assumed he was cold on the stoop.
“Last minute gifts for Christmas, Herr Schuster?”
Jobst nodded and blew on his fingers.
It was wholly dark when Jobst sneaked back into his own house and wrapped all the presents in paper.
One pretty apron for Gertrude.
Four petite overcoats with matching mittens.
Thick woollen stockings in small.
Woollen coats, the size of six boys.
Gloves to match.
Late that evening Jobst cut soles from the last of his leather. After a lifetime of fitting and measuring he could size by mindsight, even as his eyesight waned. He knew the dimensions of the nine children. The tenth pair of boots were slightly bigger, made for the girl with the bucket of dung.
“Will you come up to bed, dear husband? It’s Christmas Eve, after all.”
“Soon, my love,” he said.
This time the shoemaker saw them, manifesting from wall-shadows.
They saw him there too and they paid him no mind.
This time the creatures made child-sized boots. They sat in a row along his bench and respected his precious tools, chatting quietly, stitching and awling to a joyful soundscape of distant carollers. They stoked his fire to warm their slim hands.
Jobst retired upstairs. He and Gertrude lay like spoons, nestled deep in their feather bed. Jobst dreamed without screaming.
He slept until late on Christmas morning. Jobst had never felt younger. His heart felt so light it might float.
By morning the creatures had gone and they’d taken the child-sized goods. Jobst checked high and low. They’d taken the girl’s gifts too, and they’d lay them where she would find them.
Gertrude loved her new apron. She presented Jobst with an orange fruit.
The creatures had left Jobst their prettiest footwear—the tasseled brogues, the mules, the finely-stitched wingtips. The shoemaker must sell these beauties. He would buy more leather.
“You seem content,” Gert said over breakfast.
“Indeed, I am.”
Those guilt-shapen elves hadn’t come for him.
They had never come for him.
The tale of The Elves and the Shoemaker you knew as a child may not align with earlier versions, in which the central message is quite different. I was spooked when I read a non-bowdlerised version!
The Porridge Thief Goldilocks and the Three Bears
Once upon a time there lived three bears. They had found the house one day, in a wood. They weren’t really bears. But they did look ursine from a distance. They looked ursine now, setting out in the early morn, wrapped in their thick fur coats—Papa, Mama and Baby in front, squealing at the white carpet which had settled overnight.
“I brought a carrot for the nose!” said Papa Bear in his great, rough, gruff voice. “Keep watch for two round stones. We’ll make them do for eyes!”
Goldilocks shrank smaller into her scrubby hiding place. She no longer lived i a house of her own, though she did inhabit the wood.
She knew all who lived in the wood, though they did not know her. She knew their habits and their faces, though she gave them her own poetic names.
The Bears had found her cart once, before she learnt to hide it in leaves. They wondered where it came from and riffled through her things. Their excitement waned as they listed her worldly possessions: Three worn blankets, two darned socks, a skillet. Acorns, sticks, a blunt paring knife.
“A child must have left it,” they said.
After that, they sensed her presence. They shuddered at the unwashed smell she left behind in their house.
“I’ll heat you a bath, Baby. Aren’t you a wee willy stinky!”
They half-wondered who used all the kindling. A long discussion ensued about who had stoked the fire that time when neither Mama nor Papa had lit it.
“Perhaps this cottage contains spirits,” said Mama, for they had not lived here long and did not know its history. “But sing out if you find anything gone.”
Nothing was gone. Nothing they’d notice.
The trio of Bears disappeared along the woodland trail. Goldilocks avoided the common paths but knew where the Bears were headed—to the clearing. They would build a snowman and hurl friendly balls of packed ice. Goldilocks knew to avoid such missiles. She never dodged in fun.
Next the Bears would visit the frozen lake. They’d taken a wicker basket and dangled their knife-soled boots. They would frolic until dusk, hollering all the while. They’d return in the late afternoon, hungry for a home-cooked meal.
When they were properly gone, Goldlilocks walked up to the house.
Out of habit, she made a fist and rubbed a circle into frozen glass. Next she peeped in at the keyhole, though she knew they were gone, all three. They hadn’t locked the door. They never locked it. She lifted the latch.
The fire burned warm but would not last the day. She wanted to keep it alive. If she tended the fire, the cottage would remain toasty for the family’s return. She’d be doing a silent favour, but then they’d know she’d been there. And Baby had learned to fear ghosts. He woke at night screaming, and Goldilocks heard him. The whole wood heard him.
The breakfast table had been cleared and wiped. But a pot of slops sat near the stove—an evening gift for the pigs. One clean dollop of oatmeal could be rescued from its nest of potato peelings. Goldilocks took the lump and filled her mouth.
These slops were a few days old. The cream had turned quite sour. Goldilocks swallowed anyhow, because porridge lined her stomach.
Then she spied a fresh bowl of oats, half eaten, with a small spoon sunk into it. Baby had left most of it, excited for a big day out. Surely they weren’t saving it for later.
Waste not, want not.
Goldilocks gulped Baby’s leftovers, using the bowl like a drinking mug. His porridge was a little on the cold side, but Goldilocks could not remember her last hot meal, so it felt just right to her. She was reminded how warm food feels, filling a chilly gut. She considered licking the bowl, partly to keep it from setting hard on ceramic, but she restrained her voracious, cold-weather appetite. She’d leave a little for pigs. Then she’d replace the spoon and put the bowl back where it was.
She poked the fire, hoping to stir it up. She planned to spend a warm day sitting quietly, belly full and thinking. She could enjoy the dream of home, probably until vespers. How nice it would be to stay for an evening as well, to eat roast meat and potato on a middling-sized plate of her own. She could help with the mending and put Baby to bed. Oh, she knew plenty of tales. She could spin epic stories of chase, and of hide and seek. She’d warn him of predators, and he’d learn that anyone, anytime, can always lose their home. That’s the thing about lullabies—the words are lumpy but the tunes are treacle sweet.
Such was her dream. She’d be long gone by nightfall, of course. Meanwhile, she’d spend the day listening for voices and footfall.
One chair belonged to Mama, closest to the hearth to allow for sewing by night. Mama used a cushion for her bony rump. Papa required a sturdier construction, close to the ashtray, the Bible, the matches. Between them, nestled safely, would normally sit the Baby chair, though babies rarely need chairs, preferring floors for rolling around on and for stretching out long. He’d upturned his wee chair and there it propped, topsy-turvy, up against the wall.
This is not how Goldilocks remembered the arrangement. So she took the Baby chair and she set it upright for now, between Mama and Papa, safe as can be. She imagined her own Mama on one side, Papa on the other. She loved the smell of pipe. She detected the wraith of it lingering now. Papa Bear must have smoked one this morning, just as her own Papa did.
Goldilocks grew shorter as Baby grew taller. He’d grown too big for his child-sized chair. Goldilocks preferred it still—her swollen feet could rest flat on the floor. She so rarely got to sit like a lady. She normally squatted—a resting position in common with defecation. So she hitched up her long skirt of rags and sighed and she sank onto the little seat.
She didn’t sit; she sprawled.
It was not Goldilocks who broke it. Goldilocks had been sheltered by a hut of branches when it broke, trying to sleep through the cold. But there had been swinging and leaning, last night, followed by cautions and admonishments. Baby Bear smashed his wee chair after leaning back hard. Mama tied its pieces with twine, waiting for firmer nailing. The chair looked complete at first glance. But when Goldilocks sat, a leg splayed out and the bottom came free.
She’d have trouble getting up. She said a wicked word about that. She lay there for a very long time, taking inventory of her pains. Pains were not new. She refused to dwell on those and made an escape plan.
First she would roll onto her left side. Next, rise upon all fours. From there she would grab the sturdy big Papa chair. She’d grasp its nearest leg with one gnarled fist, then heave-ho, up we go!
She rehearsed this manoeuvre in her mind. From the floor she could see through spicules decorating the front window. Snow whirled and the wind whistled. Goldilocks started to worry. In this weather the Bears may cut their excursion short.
Eventually, after much effort, and far too long on the very hard floor, the old woman made it to her feet. She fell heaving and near sobbing into the big chair and realised she had collected a new pain after all—one dominant ache along her right side. She winced as she reached up to tighten her bun, which was always coming loose. White wisps of hair glowed yellow against the embers. She wore once more the golden halo of childhood.
The fire made everything better.
But the big Papa chair was hard as the floor. This damaged hip would require padding. If she were very careful, she might make it over to the Mama chair— the one with the cushioned seat. She could lurch over, almost, but then she’d sit upon knitting needles. It was no good. A chair wouldn’t do.
She could reach the poker from here. She snatched at it like it might attempt a quick getaway. Poker to floorboard, she hoisted herself up from the hard chair, off her agonising hip, and hobbled–thud, thud, thud—into the bed-chamber, poker as walking stick. She had no time to survey the arrangement of beds, but flopped, without really meaning to, onto the short mattress by the window.
The bed head was different and the linen fresh, but the view remained unchanged. From her pillow, the old woman gazed up at a familiar childhood view. Through the misty squall she counted the hilltops. She counted them as she had, many years ago: One, two three, one two three, before she’d learned numbers to six.
Her bed was just right.
It was soft as cloud. A bony elbow would never gain purchase to prop her back up. Life is short but the nights are long. If only she’d spent more of them soft and warm like this.
She should have asked for more. She should have rattled the pots, washed in the tub and eaten her share of the meat. They would have noticed her then, with their wide red mouths and their flapping, furry coats. She should have stood her ground. She should have screamed to the hills.
They’d find her this time, where beginning meets end. She knew not to worry. Cold was setting in, and soon they’d all be home.
In earlier versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the person who breaks in to eat porridge is an elderly woman. How would the experience of breakiing and entering be different if one were very old? This is basically a tale of homelessness. Older women have always been vulnerable to homelessness. What if we take that one step further? What if the old woman were so old she’s a ghost?
The F**k Princess The Frog Princess
Princess Brunhild sprinted across the palace gardens, hitched her skirts and leapt up the marble steps, three at a time. She ignored the guards and skidded across the parquet floor, careening to the right. She blundered elbow first into the front parlour.
“Lower your cups!” she yelled.
Both older sisters did as directed. By the look on Brunhild’s face, their lemon water had been poisoned.
“I thought it tasted weird,” said Princess Rosie, the eldest and—against archetype—also the most conventionally attractive.
“How long have we got?” asked Princess Ortrun, second born, always practical. “Was it arsenic? It was arsenic, wasn’t it.”
Brunhild had been working out with golden kettle balls for years now, so it didn’t take long to stop puffing. “Worse,” she said. “There’s a frog. A fucking ugly, mouthy fucking frog, in the well. And he’s been using it as a latrine, by the looks.”
Rosie and Ortrun sprayed their own barrage of expletives. Rosie poked out her tongue and wiped at it with a mostly unfinished tapestry. Ortrun rushed to the window, opened it a crack and spat into the flowerbed. Then she threw up.
“We need to switch to ale,” Rosie said between tongue wipes. “Ale is sanitary. I’ve had the shits for a week. Now I know it’s because of that frog in the drinking water.”
“I’ve had the shits for a fortnight,” said Ortrun.
“Listen bitches,” said Brunhild. “It’s not a competition. But I’ve had the shits for a month.”
Unfortunately Brunhild had left the parlour door agape, and their conversation was overheard by the Queen.
“Heart!” exclaimed their mother from the corridor. It was basically a reflex. “You swear like comfit-makers’ wives!”
Rosie put down the slobbery tapestry. “We don’t drink, we don’t smoke, we don’t hunt. What’s fucking left, Ma?”
They had a point. The Queen continued towards the garden for some quiet convalescence. She knew better than to get into a moral maelstrom with her daughters, especially when she wasn’t feeling in tip-top shape. One on one the girls were manageable, but together in one room? They’d eat you alive. This is why marriage interviews were conducted with one princess per room. One would meet the trembling suitor in East Wing. Another waited in the parlour, hands occupied. The third princess was required to sit by the pond, chaperoned. That way, no one could send secret messages or pop up from behind bushes or produce fart noises behind gloves. Despite these precautions, not one of the royal daughters had received a lasting offer.
No, thought the Queen. I will say something. I don’t have the stomach for it, but I’m going to say something. So she turned on her heels and said something, just one thing, through the parlour door.
“I’m starting to wonder if you girls even want to be married.”
Then she slammed the door tight and continued to the garden, completely depleted of energy.
Arms linked, Princesses Rosie, Ortrun and Brunhild strode down the wide palace halls, barged through the flush door and filed into the kitchen. They weren’t supposed to be in here. But the kitchen staff enjoyed their visits. Unlike more typical aristocrats, the princesses never complained about trivial matters. They never sent back their meals. Nay, they scarfed food down as if en route to the gallows. Sometimes they went on excursions abroad and returned with souvenirs. Last time, they gave colour postcards to each of the servants. Mrs Knowles now owned the naked bust of a man. It sat propped upon her chest of drawers. She gazed upon it often.
The princesses plopped themselves down on the kitchen benches.
“We’ve come with bad news,” Brunhild announced. “The water’s off.”
Mrs Knowles considered this for a moment then nodded. “I thought so.”
“There’s a frog in it,” Brunhild continued. “A talking frog.”
“You know what that means,” said Mrs Knowles. “I’ll bet he’s a handsome prince. Ten ingots says he’s been a proper bastard and, as a result of his own actions, he’s had a curse put on him by a so-called witch. Now he’s lurking about the palace wanting one of you girls to be smooching him on the smacker. Not to mention all the rest.”
“Frogs don’t have lips,” said Ortrun. “Lips meld into the rest of the froggy little face, as part of the froggy spell.”
“How do you know what frogs have and don’t have?” Brunhild looked suspiciously at Ortrun.
“Oh, I’ve seen him. You’re not the only one he’s been bothering, oh pretty one. He found me in the rose garden last week.”
“Why the hell didn’t you warn us?”
Better late than never, Ortrun recounted her story. The frog had asked what she was reading, even though he could see the title from his rock and knew perfectly well what she was reading without having to bother her about it. Then he wanted to give his own opinions on Speechmaking To The Masses, so Ortrun had to find another part of the garden.
“He located me in my new hiding spot. But I ignored him so he hopped onto the book and sat on the pages.”
“Literally? On the pages?”
“He left slime. If Wilhelm queries it, tell him it looks like his own sneeze.”
The housekeeper, the princesses and all the kitchen staff screwed up their faces.
“Ugh. Frog slime. And to think we’ve been using that water at table!” Mrs Knowles shuddered. “Right, then.” She could never sit idle and chat. She picked up the boning knife.
“Main point being,” said Brunhild, passing the sharpening stone, “all water must be strained and boiled from now on. No more lemon water, no more gargling in the bath.”
“We need to get rid of that frog, more like.” Mrs Knowles put a palm to her abdomen. Her belly emitted an ominous rumble. “Wonderful acoustics in here.”
“What we need is a plan,” said young Gunda, who really should have suspected something froggy when she wound up the first bucket of sludge. She thought she’d better contribute.
Brunhild agreed. “But it has to be a hecka good plan. He’s a dodgy little froggyfucker.”
First, it was important to get the full measure of their opponent.
“What exactly are we dealing with here?” asked Mrs Knowles.
Brunhild had the most up-to-date intelligence. Plus, she needed to get this morning’s encounter off her chest.
She was first to admit, it was a dumbass idea, juggling heavy balls so close to the well.
“Fuck shit hell,” she’d cried, though mainly out of habit. She wasn’t much bothered by the loss. It’s not like the ball was made of proper gold. ’Twas more a cheap alloy, which seemed golden from a distance, especially on royal sunny days. Brunhild liked to use the garden ornaments as training equipment, throwing them up, catching them, mostly. Her upper-body strength must have progressed beyond her annoying winter plateau. As a consequence, the metal ball felt light as a feather this lovely spring morn. Off it flew, into the fucking well, never to be seen again.
That’s when the frog dragged himself out, panting with the exertion. He clung to the circular stone wall with bulbous fingertips. His neck ballooned, in and out. With his other froggy forelimb he clutched the ball to his belly.
Brunhild eyed him suspiciously, hoping he wouldn’t talk.
“Typical,” said the frog. “Throwing like a girl.”
Brunhild recognised the negging.
“What’s negging?” asked the new kitchen girl, who was only twelve. Gunda had not yet met the princesses. So she introduced herself. “Gunda means war,” she added.
Princess Brunhild made approving noises about the girl’s name. Then she explained, as to a little sister. “Negging is when some fool thinks it’s cute to open with insults. I guess you haven’t spent much time in bars, young Gunda.”
“Have you, but?”
“Royal ladies have to suffer through dinner parties, which is experience enough.”
Princesses Rosie and Ortrun groaned and agreed.
Even the housekeeper knew what Brunhild was talking about, and Mrs Knowles was a ‘Mrs’ in station only. She’d always been single. “Some men think if they’re rude about the vegetables you’ll engage in further witty conversation,” she explained. “Best thing for that sort is a long, cold stare.”
“That’s what I did,” continued Brunhild, “to the frog. But he didn’t shut up. I think he thrived on that kind of attention. He said, ‘What’ll you give me if I return this golden ball?’ So I told him. I said ‘I don’t care one way or the other what you do with that great hunk of metal. It’s yours now,’ I said. ‘Off you fuck.’”
But the frog wouldn’t take the hint. “Tell you what,” he’d said to Brunhild, thinking himself generous. “I’ll give you this ball back and you’ll agree to marry me. You and me together, as long as we both shall live. Day in, day out. I’ll sit next to you at your table and eat from your golden plate and drink from your cup and sleep in your bed and—’”
The women in the kitchen laughed and slapped the wet table.
“What did you say to that, Brunhild?”
“I said, ‘I haven’t heard of that one. What exactly do you mean?’ The frog looked creepy and very knowing. So I said, ‘Sex? You mean fucking, right?’”
The kitchen erupted in more laughter.
“It’s not bloody funny,” said Brunhild, chuckling all the same. “He was serious! As if a lifetime of sexual servitude is compensation for the return of a garden decoration!”
“Euphemism,” said Ortrun, quietly. “‘Golden plate’ indeed. What did you tell him, Brunhild?”
“‘Oh sure,’ I said. ‘Sounds like a fair deal to me!’ Ha ha ha!”
“You could do worse,” mused young Gunda. “Won’t he transmogrify back into a proper prince? Do you get to judge how handsome he is before you consider marriage, or is it a complete gamble?”
“He went into that, as it happens. He said it wouldn’t count as bestiality at all. He whipped a self-portrait out of his back pocket.”
“The frog has pockets?” Gunda put her hand to her chest. She imagined little dolly clothes.
“Oh, he comes fully dressed,” said Brunhild. “Though sopping wet, dripping slime all over the show. I guess his duds got shrunk along with his body.”
The women shuddered and agreed—the witch had done them a favour there. No one wants to see that kind of nakedness.
“So, what did he look like as a prince?” asked Gunda.
“Not bad, compared to his current warty self. Though he could’ve cut the portrait out of a chapbook.” Brunhild was full of theories, none charitable. She shared her theory about the well water. “I bet he can’t stand looking at his froggy reflection, which is why he murked it up.”
“He’s probably been talking shit into it,” observed Ortrun.
“A frog with confidence issues.” Gunda looked dreamy. “If I were a princess, I might’ve said yes. Did he promise you a castle?”
Rosie took over. The frog prince had been bothering her each night at bath time. “Let me guess. He told you all about his massive castle, his eight white horses, his lake of white swans.”
“So you’ve seen him too.” Brunhild narrowed her eyes. “Did neither of yous think he might be living — and shitting — in the drinking well?”
“Rule of three,” said Ortrun, immersed in thought. “Set up your argument, establish a pattern, conclude your case. A classic”
Brunhild sighed. “He boasted to me too, Rosie. Then he announced we’d live ‘happily ever after’.”
Ortrun stood up and waved her index finger. “Hyperbole followed by confident conjecture. He’s read my book. Well, he’s read Wilhelm’s book that I borrowed and never gave back, on speech making for kings in training. He’s saying ‘we’ to suggest you already agree with him.”
“Then the frog starts bawling his eyes out,” Brunhild continued, expecting agreement. “’I’m an especially ugly reptile,’ he says, blubbering like a bad actor. ’Nobody wants me! I haven’t been kissed in years!’ Like his involuntary celibacy is somehow my problem.”
Everyone nodded sagely. They’d seen the type.
“False humility,” said Ortrun, who was counting rhetorical devices on her fingers. “There’s an entire chapter on that. Also, frogs aren’t reptiles. They’re amphibians. He should know that, of all… people?”
“Where is this book?” Brunhild asked.
“On pond life?”
“Nah, the one on manipulative rhetoric. Did you return it to Wilhelm’s library?”
“It went missing. Unfortunately, some of the pages have been permanently stuck together. That’s two books covered in slime. Brother Wilhelm shall not be pleased when he returns from his journey.”
Brunhild stood up and reached for a dishcloth in order to throw it dramatically onto the table. “Ladies. We face a more pressing issue.”
The kitchen staff agreed, they’d better get back to work. They had just this minute been charged with a grand task: the preparation of a seven course dinner.
But the princesses had an open afternoon, so they split up and searched the palace grounds.
Ortrun had been mightily impressed by the presence of three actual, real live princesses in the kitchen. They were just like regular people. And now a fairytale frog! She intended to impress them all. So she took a wet pudding bowl down to the well, frog-sized, she hoped.
She re-encountered Princess Ortrun.
Gunta thought of asking if she might touch the luxurious fabric on the princess’s beautiful dress.
Instead, Princess Ortrun took the opportunity to scare the poor kitchen girl with tales of trots and spew, volume two. “Don’t get a single drop of frog water on that kitchen bowl,” she instructed, peering into the well, grabby-hands at the ready.
But the enemy himself was nowhere to be seen.
Gunta was required back in the kitchen.
The princesses reconvened under the pavilion at twilight, dispirited and annoyed.
“It’s probably just as well,” sighed Rosie. “Pun intended. We should always intend our puns. By the way, what does the law say, Ortrun?”
“Lawd. I haven’t snuck into the legal library yet.”
“Surely it’s not murder, so long as he looks more frog than man.”
Ortrun wasn’t so sure. “Where does one draw the line? And how would a judge feel about talking frogs, wearing little clothes? Is that murder, or is it frog-slaughter?”
Brunhild shuddered. She could make it look like an accident, either way. She’d borrowed Wilhelm’s heaviest hunting boots and spent the entire afternoon psyching herself up for some serious stomping. Or perhaps she’d pick up the hideous creature and, with all her might, throw him against a wall.
Something may have switched over in her.
Rosie was about to ask if that strange look on Brunhild’s face was gas related, but at that very moment they were interrupted.
“Girls! Girls!” Their mother’s lady-in-waiting came loping across the lawn, as fast as her gown would allow. “Where have you all been? An important guest has arrived! Dinner is nigh on served!”
The princesses glanced at each other in horror. “Oh fuck,” they said, in perfect unison.
The King and his guest sat drinking at one end of the dinner table, making political smalltalk.
The princesses filed in and were confused at first, especially Brunhild. Just this morning, she’d been shown a picture of a prince before he turned to frog. This guy looked kind of like that. He seemed part man, part frog. If she had to assign taxonomy she wouldn’t know where to start. Bulbous black eyes sat high upon his head. His mouth was wide and split his face in two. She didn’t notice his short stature. He’d been furnished with a discreet pile of cushions and so looked taller than he was.
“I’ve come on behalf of my older brother.” The prince addressed the king, but eyed all three princesses as they bent to sit. “He’s in a bit of a situation, you see. Men in his condition, er, aren’t generally welcome at royal table.”
“Let me spoil the climax,” said Ortrun. “Your brother’s gone full frog and you’re here to persuade one of us to kiss him better.”
The King laughed nervously. “Excuse my daughters,” he said to the guest. “Princess Ortrun, in particular, is rudely direct.”
“I like a strong, sassy woman,” said the wingman younger brother, whose name no one cared about. “My brother hopped to me earlier and had a word in my ear. He tells me one of your daughters offered him marriage this morning, down by the well.”
“Well, that serves me right for cracking a joke,” said Brunhild. “Did he take it in earnest?”
“That which thou hast promised must thou perform,” said the King, though he might have arranged his words in the wrong order. He tried again, to no avail. He’d been on the ale all afternoon. “At any rate.” He plonked down his goblet. “If you offered to marry the frog, Brunhild, I consider you officially engaged. Dear son, you have my word.”
“I believe Brunhild was employing the rhetorical device of ‘irony’, father,” Ortrun explained. “Specifically, its subcategory of sarcasm.”
“This is why I told you girls to quit the snark. This is what happens, you see! You get yourselves in deep.”
“Never mind all that,” said the guest, with unexpected grace. “Now we have all three daughters at table, let’s start from scratch. Females are always changing their minds.”
The King grinned widely and raised his drink for a clink.
“What’s your name, beauty?” asked the frog’s younger brother, leering at Rosie. “You are so beautiful that the sun itself, which has seen much, is astonished whenever it shines upon your face.”
Rosie failed to stifle a snort. Neither Ortrun nor Brunhild did any better.
The King was used to this, and adept at changing the subject. “Are you a something of a foodie, dear prince? Our cook is renowned for her foreign dishes. She says to expect a French feast.”
The prince nodded politely and cleared his froggy throat. “My brother is more foodie than I. He’s also a very nice guy. A great catch, with beautiful, kind eyes.”
“How on earth can he be single,” mused Rosie.
“Princesses these days don’t want a nice guy. They want alpha males. Tall, handsome, human. They can’t see past appearances.”
“Blanket statement,” coughed Ortrun. “Generalisation. It’s not even true.”
The princesses had not pinned hopes on emotionally mature life partners. They knew they were limited to a small puddle of aristocratic assholes. They only hoped to choose their own aristocratic assholes, without the bald duress.
“I blame witches for this culture shift,” the guest continued. “They fly out of the forest and spread radical ideas like wildfire.”
Ortrun coughed, but the cough sounded a lot like “Scapegoating!”
“We should round them all up and burn them at the stake. These bewitching witches, they come onto our land and practise their own nasty religion.” He took a gulp from his goblet. “I have some empathy for their methods. I mean, look where they come from. But they mete out vigilante justice. They must learn to live as we do.”
“It’s not illegal to emerge from the Deep, Dark Woods and present yourself at the border,” said Rosie, glancing at Ortrun for confirmation. “Nor is it illegal to practise your own religion.”
“I’m not saying it’s illegal,” corrected the prince. “I’m saying it’s wrong. You misunderstand the entire issue.”
“Condescension,” coughed Ortrun.
“You say I misunderstand on the assumption that, if I properly understood, then I would surely agree with you. But I do understand. I simply do not agree.”
“Ortrun,” scalded the King. “I observe you are feeling delicate, same as your mother. You ought to retire early and avoid spreading vapours.”
“Oh this ain’t vapours.” Ortrun raised her goblet. A butler poured ale, though into her water vessel. Ortrun sighed. She needed it neat.
The prince took another pissed-off sip of his own.
“What do you think of my brew?” The King always liked to impress guests with a lecture on grain mash and yeasts.
“I believe it’s a tad watery.” The prince dabbed at his mouth and suppressed an odorous belch. “It might be actual water. I wouldn’t normally speak up, but I do require an alcoholic beverage to aid digestion.”
The King snapped at the nearest butler, who apologised profusely and dashed off for a proper drink. “I’m so sorry, dear prince. We have a new kitchen girl. She’s learning the ropes.”
Then the first course arrived.
They all bent for prayer.
“Help yourself to the meats,” said the King to the Prince. “We offer a rare selection, as you can see.”
The prince accepted a hunk of flesh.
The princesses waited for their turn at the plate. There wasn’t much really, just an appetiser amount to share.
“I believe you’re right, Father.” Ortrun declined a serving.
“Damn right, I’m right.” (He wasn’t sure what about.)
“I couldn’t possibly digest meat with this delicate constitution. Goodnight, dear Prince. Father. Sisters.”
The King looked meaningfully at his remaining two daughters. “Anyone else feel the need to retire? Lest they cough up something doltish?”
“Nup, I’m staying for this.” Rosie cocked her head, leaned forward and displayed her ample bosom to the guest. “I volunteer my lips in service to your wonderful brother, the frog. I shall fix his problem forthwith, or whenever he so chooses to grace us with his presence.”
The younger prince seemed taken aback at the change in emotional valence. Indeed, this feast was far more enjoyable with that stroppy influence taken to her bed.
“Grand!” he turned to the King. “That’s settled, then! My brother will marry Princess Rosie. That’s perfect, since he’s heir and she’s the pretty one. And I’ll take… er…”
“Sitting to your right is Brunhild,” said the King. “Brunhild hefts metal balls for the sake of exercise. She’s plenty strong and sassy, as you like them.”
“Indeed. And pretty enough, I suppose. There’s not much between them, from this angle.”
The King could not believe his luck. Two daughters sorted, one to go! Perhaps he could palm his feeble, bookish daughter onto the church.
“Well, then. What kind of rarity do we have here?” asked the prince. “It tastes like chicken but the proportions don’t square up.”
“Cook said to expect some sort of amphibian,” Rosie explained, peering quizzically as best she could.
The prince swallowed his mouthful. His neck bulged. “Some sort of what, dear sister?”
“Amphibian. It’s a type of animal.”
“Oh, a French animal. Grand. Grand.” The prince bared his small, cone-shaped teeth to rip buttery flesh from the delicate bone. “Locally grown garlic, I suppose?”
Blushing bride Rosie wrapped her lips around her own tasty portion. She was determined to enjoy it.
Across the table, Brunhild stared her down. “May I be excused, father?”
“What? You too, Brunhild? Are you indisposed as your sister?”
“You could say that.” Brunhild opened her mouth wide, to pluck flesh from her back teeth. “Or you could say I’m suffering from contaminated water. I need to squirt in a pot.”
The frog’s brother goggled his eyes and gulped. “Er—”
“Please sir, dear son-in-law, you must excuse your bride. She’s not usually this crass. It’s the well, you see—”
“I— I’m having second thoughts about this union,” spluttered the frog brother, who had glanced away from Brunhild’s brown stain of shit-fart, seeping across his bride’s pale skirts as she ran from the dining room. “May I be excused from my contract? I never make deals without an evening’s worth of ale. My sober self is the more addled.”
“I suppose so.” The king slumped deep in his big seat. He might have trotted out his usual chestnut, “That which thou hast promised must thou perform” to use against his guest, but he knew he couldn’t manage the awkward sentence twice. So he didn’t bother.
All the while, Rosie’s grin hadn’t faded.
The king dismissed her with a tired little finger waggle.
She said nothing as she left, though she did bid a warm goodnight. She closed the door so the pungent aroma would not follow behind. She giggled all the way to the chamber pot.
As for her sisters, they could not breathe for laughing.
Here’s what got me thinking about this plot: If there’s a frog in your well, and if the frog is really a human, then wouldn’t the drinking water of the household (or castle) be contaminated? Aside from that, I was read a Ladybird edition of The Frog Princess growing up, and absolutely hated the message. This story exists to give the girls back some of their humanity.