These last days, she draws down on me. Sometimes I pause; lean against the wall. I wonder will the burden be too much? Jacob has waited many a year, and I too. But we are not young.
God’s miracle, he says.
The winter nights are long. In our youth, the candles flickered, danced to the quaver of Jacob’s fiddle. Our muscles were tired; our eyes, heavy. Replete with bread and stew, we were content. Later, I’d sing a ballad to the music of the wailing wind.
Enchantress, he said.
Now my stomach is ripe, I sing again. For many years, the candles’ flames waltzed, but to a silent melody. The fiddle lies lifeless still – a memory of another time – by the empty crib. That tiny bed, a gift for our betrothal, was for endless winters, nothing more than a broken promise.
Jacob sits by my chair, cast now, not under my spell, but the enchantment of another. Each night, to the crackling beat of the fire, I hum a lullaby, as he gently rests his cheek against the swell of my belly.
On the morrow, he whispers, his lips touching the velvet of my skirts. On the morrow.
Our darling craves the richest rampion, and though the hag’s garden grows thick with it, the villagers tell stories about her, and I am afraid.
He touches my hand.
Our little beauty shall have what she desires, he says.
The tower is the cruellest joke.
Looming above, built from coarsest stone, it casts shadows over the land. It is doorless, yet at the pinnacle, sits a window. Each day, I cut my way through the forest, to watch my blonde belle look out; hear her song, sweeter than mead.
Each day, my shame poisons my heart.
To forsake my child to that hag. To that tower.
Agnes does not look me in the eye now, but she did not see the hag’s face as she gripped my rampion-laden hand. Those red eyes left me frozen.
My belle only had one visitor – the hag – until of late. A prince, seduced by her voice, caught sight of her. Squatting amongst briers, I watched the fool, as he duped her; clambering up her hair, into the tower. Day after day, he’d visit – courage and ignorance a-plenty.
And now, my cowardice captures me again. I nearly stopped him, called out. But the hag warned me, when she took our babe, to never come near.
The empty crib will help you remember.
When the length of flaxen hair unravelled from the tower, he climbed without pause. I did not see his face when the hag met him at the window, but I saw his fall.
Treacherous again, I ran from the forest.
Thorns tore my skin with every step.
What have I done?
She was mine, but is no more.
I was not always like this. But the villagers are stupid, afraid. They do not try to understand. I kept my own counsel, but their narrow eyes and whispers twisted my guts like a chicken neck in a wire.
Countless full moons passed as I watched the couple from my garden. As lines of age defiled their skin, my soul expanded with joy. Over a score of autumns, their smiles faded, the brightness in their eyes dimmed. They did not know it, but our arid souls intertwined, and I was less alone.
I took her, not because I wanted her, but because I could not bear to see them blessed. Though I did not expect my heart to fill with joy, I welcomed it. But the joy brought an affliction.
When I saw her, releasing her tresses from the window – her arms open; honouring him in a way she never honoured me – I tasted the bitter herb, betrayal, on my tongue. I let its toxic vines grow unfettered, spreading blight into my hands, my body, my eyes.
When I cleaved off her hair, grasping it from the window for him to climb, her love for me diminished. When he fell into the thorns, her love for me died.
I cast her in the desert so she would know what I saw when I looked in her eyes.
And before I released her, I made clear how I came about her, and how her mother and father never came to set her free.
Lord Baldor advised me to stay away. I, too tempted by her beauty, now pay for my sins.
When the witch cast me from the tower, my eyes were pierced. Later, the girl found me, and I, exultant with relief, kissed her face. To her, it was a symbol of betrothal. Afraid of abandonment, I did not correct her.
Over days, we travelled to my Father’s kingdom. For her kindness, he gave her a place in Court, but I found the girl ignorant: she dabbled with magic, weeping over my eyes to clear away darkness with tears. She said my lack of faith meant her devilry did not work.
Her hair, removed of its bountiful tresses, was cropped like a barbarian. Baldor says she has beauty no more. And her manners – foul.
Now, as she confronts me, she speaks like a serf.
I am a prince, and you are but a common girl, I laugh.
Ah, she says, then I hinder you no more.
She leans, to exchange a parting kiss.
As her lips graze mine, my sight returns as if it never left. She opens her eyes, and I gasp. They burn – red as hell. Fear crushes me in its fist. Our lips part, and with this last touch, the walls slide away, the furniture expands, and the girl too. I am crouching at the base of her skirts. Trying to speak, I fail, then catch my image in the looking-glass.
My clothes are a pile upon the floor, and I – I cannot believe my eyes – am a toad.
Now, sweet prince, it’s time for me to visit my parents.
She turns to leave – pauses – turns back.
I cannot leave you like this, she says.
She raises her foot, and the last thing I see is its shadow as it falls.