The other maids laughed and said unkind things, but I knew that there was an air of interest about their words all the same. Although he was less than half our size, his chest was broad and his knuckles had hair. He was other, he was male, the only male we were allowed to know until we were Chosen.
The dwarf giant and I had become friends in the way only those in difficult circumstances and in a difficult place can be. He was the only being I had ever met who truly belonged to no one. This freedom inspired in me a dangerous kind of curiosity, one I was careful to hide. Knowledge was a quality nurtured in our order; curiosity was not. My fate was bondage from birth: first as a peasant to the king, then as a maid to the mistresses of my order, then one day to a wizard as his helpmate. The questions Sendak aroused in me about this fate could only lead to dissatisfaction and so were left better unasked.
Purity is one of the qualities that strengthen a maid’s gift, and our contact with the male was strictly guarded. Sendak was an exception. Sub-mortals, as the mistresses called him, were said to be unlikely to endanger one’s purity. He also knew the properties of every plant on the school grounds. This was good knowledge, old knowledge of the type that might save our master’s life one day. Most of the other maids were indifferent. They knew that their fair faces and cultured ways would carry them in any household they were placed. I did not have these advantages. I was only placed in the order because I had a small amount of talent and the headmistress took pity on me. My hands were still rough from a childhood of labor. Any wizard who took me in would require much.
I became interested in horticulture out of a sense of duty and desperation, but Sendak mistook it for a passion and under his tutelage it became one. We would walk the gardens as close together as discretion allowed, my trailing hand at level with the dark curly poll of his head. He would name the different kinds of plants that grew there, the details of their care and their medicinal and magical uses. We took care to stay within sight of the other maids or rather they took care to stay within sight of us. Sometimes we would be so preoccupied with our discussion that we would be almost out of sight before they realized. We would have to hesitate at the edge of the garden as, sighing, Valery and the others rose, brushed the grass from their skirts and moved a little closer to us.
Just once on these walks did Sendak raise his eyes to look at me directly. I had put my hand over a charmed rose, which moved and nestled in my palm. I laughed in surprise. When I turned to look at him I found that he was looking at me. His eyes, the exact shade of dark tea color as his curly hair, I had mistaken in glances as being sub-human, almost equine. Now, looking at them full on, I recognized that they were as human as mine. His gaze was sad and almost calculating, as though waiting for proof of something I could not provide. Then there was a titter from our chaperones on the lawn, and we both turned our gazes away.
Valery did not like me even before the appearance of the wraith. My worn clothes and rural manners made me an outcast, and she fomented this exile. Maybe she sensed my dubious gift before it became so apparent, the gift that had drawn the headmistress to take me in. At any rate, when she was Chosen first of all our class, she made certain that I received the brunt of her boasting.
The wizard who Chose her was of great reputation, although from far enough away that the mistresses had no real grasp of his character. It was an honor that he Chose her himself, instead of sending his wife for the task. That morning he toured the grounds and noticed Valery ‘almost immediately,’ she said. The headmistress nodded her assent to his will. Valery was bonded as his servant that evening, to join him at his estate when she finished her education. So bonded, there would be no diverting this fate.
That night after the bonding, Valery kept the maids in our dormitory awake long past curfew as she told us all the details. Her new master was not handsome, she said (I had not seen him), but rather powerful, impressive in his bearing. His estate was large and contained magical creatures and plants of the kind even the mistresses had not heard of. And he had Chosen her, he revealed, over all the other maids because her great fairness and gifts were evident even at a distance. Valery nodded sympathetically in my direction as she said this. I smiled (it is unbecoming for a maid to express envy, even when envy is the emotion one is trying arouse), turned over on my pallet and went to sleep.
When I awoke it was full dark in the dormitory, the only light that of the moon streaming from an overhead window. All of the maids were asleep, soft murmurs and snores filling the room. I had awoken, though, to a different, strange sound. A scraping sound. The sound of knees on a flagstone floor.
In the far dark of the room I could make out a figure, hunched, crawling towards me. I sat up. Instead of pounding, my heart felt a kind of queasy recognition. Although this was the first time my gift had exhibited itself, I recognized it for what it was immediately. It was as though I had been waiting for it.
The figure crawled into the moonlight. Her once-blonde hair was matted and dull, her rough garments torn and filthy with use. One side of her head had clearly been stove in, and I could see where her jaw had been broken and healed wrong, her mouth with its missing teeth glinting obscenely.
“Valery?” I asked. The figure moaned in recognition. “Valery!”
Now the girls around me began to wake. Hearing her name, Valery sat up in bed.
“What?” she said. Then she saw the wraith in front of us and screamed.
Valery’s wraith attempted to scream back, but only a jagged groan escaped her throat. She raised one hand in the air, beseeching us. The fingers of her hand were rough and knotted. One was broken and pointed in a different direction than the rest. It looked like a toy a child had stepped on. Valery’s wraith looked at the girl she once was and moaned a word.
“He–” she hissed, “He, heeeeeeeeeeeeee–” Then the figure faded from our view.
Silence overtook the dormitory, broken only by the sound of Valery’s sobs. I turned to see that all of the girls were staring at me. It was clear to them whose gift had summoned the wraith and its vision of Valery’s future. And it was clear to all what that future entailed.
The next day Valery was sullen and withdrawn. I do not know whether one of the girls spoke to the headmistress, or whether intuition told her what had come to pass. But she drew us together and explained with subtle words that some foretellings of fate are accurate and others are merely versions of what the future might be, not a certainty.
But the lines on her brow confirmed a fear that had occurred to me as I lay awake through the early morning hours. My vision of Valery’s fate may have secured itself in its appearance. Her new paleness, her withdrawal, her lack of interest in studies would guarantee ill-treatment under any master. It was this thought that I carried with me to the cornfield for our morning’s work. The other girls walked a little apart from me, fear still etched in their demeanors.
Today there was no Sendak to guide us, but corn work is familiar work, old work, necessary work. The only task is to find the best ears of corn, ones our gifts told us were ripe inside the husks, kernels ready and bursting with knowledge of soil and sun. Those best ears would be taken back to the school and those of us adept at divining would husk them and use the silk and kernels to try to make some sense of the season and the season to come. They would be unceremoniously boiled and eaten at day’s end.
I think that we all had trouble concentrating that day, but not least of all me. Valery, surely, did not even attempt, but trailed behind the rest of us, occasionally brushing the sharp leaves with the back of her hand as though she had never seen them before.
In the strange hive mind that often overtakes girls we had all become cognizant of the same fear. There had been references in our practical education to a wizard’s mercurial nature, and advice on how to please and soothe our masters. No one among us might have guessed, however, that once bonded we could receive such an ill fate as Valery’s. Now the prospect loomed over us all, dimming our spirits and our gifts. There was little corn picked that day.
I say the ear of corn found me rather than I found it, because it was at the time I had resolved to change my fate that it appeared before me. Its gifts were apparent immediately: the outer leaves of its husk were a peculiar golden-green, the silk of its tassel changing in color from the fairest blonde where it emerged from the husk to a dark and wholesome brown at its tip. The husk itself was tapered and symmetrical, with the promise of golden seeds beneath. A knowledge that had no thoughts attached to it came over me. My sudden stillness caused the maids around me to pause and look as well. I could feel Valery’s eyes in particular on me as I reached out, plucked the ear, and stowed it in the front of my garment.
The maids all sighed together, a mournful sound accompanied by a sudden wind that shook the leaves around us. Then the keening began.
Of all the trespasses a maid can make against her order, Theft is the very worst. Theft is the desecration of a maid’s greatest virtues: loyalty, generosity, purity.
The keening that started with my Theft came from an old place, in a very old language. This language is one of the few gifts all maids have in common, and is used only in times of greatest injury. The keening, initiated by Valery, translated as thus: She has shamed us, she has betrayed us, she has spurned the gift of our order. They began to move away from me and back towards the grounds of the school in the ancient ritual of shunning. Soon their cries would reach the mistresses, and the mistresses would come to find me. The fate of a maid thus shunned was unspoken, but not unknown. There were only two ways to sever a bond: bond with another, or death.
She has shamed us, she has betrayed us, our order is endangered by her trespass. Many of them had tears streaming down their faces. Although I was not well-liked, it saddened any maid to see our order’s values violated thus. As for me, I walked as though puppeted in the opposite direction, into the woods.
I had only glimpsed Sendak’s cabin once but my feet found their way there easily. The ear of corn, still warm from the sun, felt like a living thing against the skin of my breast. I did not knock on his door but crept inside, waiting for him to notice me. I took off my slippers and looked around. I heard his loud but even breathing from the bed in the corner. The bed was much too large for him; he barely indented its length. I coughed, but he did not awaken. The room was imbued with his smell, an earthy, masculine odor, and the smell of something else. Liquor, I recognized. He was sleeping off its effects.
I went to the drawers at his bedside and began to open them, as though I knew what I were looking for. I rattled them. Now he awoke, and rolled over to look at me. His face almost touched mine as I kneeled at the side of his bed. His dark eyes widened.
“What do you need?” he asked me. I bowed my head, at once ashamed and grateful.
Although there was not time, and I knew there was not time, a strange gravity overcame us now that we were alone. I sat on the edge of his bed and he moved to sit next to me, his eyes never leaving my face. I looked at him, too, and then looked down. Boldly, I took his small, rough hand in mine.
“I went to the fair last night,” he said, his voice gruff.
I nodded for him to continue. It was strange to have a real conversation (when had we ever had a conversation that was not about plants?) but comfortable all the same.
“I indulged a bit too much, I’m afraid, my dear.” I nodded again. He pulled me then, with arms that were surprisingly strong, to lie next to him in the bed. My heart beat rapidly as he embraced me. He nuzzled his head against my back and gave a deep sigh. I recognized that this, too, was an old language, one I never thought I would be taught. The language of men and women who lie in bed together in the dark, embracing against the cold and speaking in murmurs of small daily events and large ideas of the heart. I moved my hand again over his, telling him in this new language to continue.
“There was a giantess there, at the fair. She saw the giant in me, bade me to speak with her. We stayed up much of the night and drank spoke of such things we had in common.”
“The giant in you?” I asked, surprised.
“Aye,” he said, now rolling me over to look at him. He touched my cheek, the edge of my lips. I saw that there were fine, curly hairs on his knuckles. “You didn’t know, of course not, that a man’s stature doesn’t always indicate his heritage. My father’s father was a giant. I am part giant too.”
He smiled. Then he touched his lips to mine. The kiss was solemn, a contract. It was as chaste and unhurried as though a countless number had passed between us.
“Are you scared?” he asked.
I shook my head, I wasn’t.
“Will it hurt?” I asked him, though.
“Yes,” he said, “A little. If it’s your first time. Is it your first time?”
I flushed. He shook his head.
“Of course it is,” he said.
Embarrassment passed between us. There was a pause. Conversation started again.
“I have my father’s father’s seven-league boots,” he said. He pulled the covers down to the bottom of the bed. They were there in the bed with us, with their strange curled toes, next to a brown cloth bag. He answered my question before I could speak it.
“Why, if I have something of such great value, why do I stay?”
Then he kissed me again. This kiss was not chaste, and it answered the question.
My breath came heavy as I pulled away and stood, pulling at the laces at the top of my garment. He looked on, breathing equally hard. Then he reached for the bag next to the boots and pulled from it two cloves of garlic.
He put one clove in his mouth, and handed another to me.
“Put this in your mouth,” he said, “It will make it easier.”
I did. I had been told of garlic and its properties before, even been called upon to use my gifts to sort it, but never thought I would have the occasion to taste it. It was as pungent and direct as sex itself. My knees buckled.
Impatiently, he stood on the bed and tore at the laces of my bodice. My dress fell around me and then the ear of corn tumbled from my breast onto the floor, landing next to my slippers.
“Oh lass, oh no,” he said, looking at it.
The voices of the mistresses as they approached his cabin reached us then. We were left without time to consummate the contract of our kiss. I looked at him.
“Please,” I said.
The impetus of my visit became clear and betrayal filled his features. I never thought that I could hurt another being that much.
“Please save me,” I said again. I didn’t have time to tell him that I wanted to belong to him, I did want to. For now, however, my only thought was salvation from the will of my mistresses.
Taking a deep breath, he went to the door. He left his shirt undone, knowing that his disarray might shame the mistresses and maids into retreat.
“Yes?” he asked them, standing in the doorway. I huddled against the far side of the bed in the dark.
The ploy might have worked, but the light from the half-open door fell on my slippers, and on the ear of corn. The headmistress caught sight of these and sighed. Behind her, I could hear the keening of the maids, rising in volume to accompany my shame. She thrust the door open further, throwing light on me and my dress lying abandoned on the floor.
“Come,” she said, her voice firm but sad. She indicated the corn, “Come. Pick it up.”
Sendak hung his head, unable now to meet my eyes. I rose. Every inch of my exposed flesh, from the bodice of my white undergarments to my scalp, I knew, was flaming red, but I held my head high. I crossed the floor and knelt to pick up the corn with one hand, my slippers with the other.
Then the keening ceased, cut at once by an unfamiliar sound. The sound of a child’s laughter.
“Daddy?” said an uncertain voice.
The headmistress turned, and then the figure darted past her in the doorway. A little girl with fat cheeks and hair the color of strong tea stood in the threshold of the cabin, eyes wide as she looked around. She turned and spied Sendak.
“Daddy!” she shrieked, and ran towards him with chubby arms wide. The wraith faded before reaching him. The three of us stared at the spot where she had been. Then, with tears running down his face, Sendak crossed the floor to put his arms around me. Kneeling, we were the same height.
Linda Stansberry is a rancher, writer and world traveler who calls Northern California home. She recently finished her first novel. This is her first fairy tale.