PodCastle 652: Apple
By L. S. Johnson
They were twelve, and between them they encompassed Dawn, Dusk, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Seed, Blossom, Harvest, Maiden, Mother, and Crone; that is to say, they were complete. Thus, when a thirteenth fairy emerged from the breath of sun upon earth they were to a one confused. None of them had expected another sister. They waited for some time — perhaps there would be more? For they had come in pairs and trios before, and Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter had practically exploded out of the same minute point of light. But no one else emerged for some time.
Finally, they looked to Dawn, who was eldest, and she looked at the new fairy and sighed. “What are you?” she asked plaintively.
The fairy didn’t know. She was fifteen minutes old and quite astonished at existing.
“We have to call her something,” Crone pointed out. (When her trio had emerged from the breath of the sun and were asked what they were, Maiden had said “beautiful,” Mother had rolled her eyes, and Crone had said “wiser than you.”)
The twelve fairies looked around, trying to think of what this one, singular fairy could be. Time slipped past, and they had other tasks to do, but still they could not think of a thing.
At last Dawn, who had been up for some time and wanted to nap, gestured to the nearest object. “We’ll call her Apple,” she declared, “until she figures out who she is.”
“She looks like an Apple,” Fall said to Harvest, who agreed, and as they both knew a lot about apples everyone thought the matter settled.
Between them they found a sweet little wood no one was occupying, with pine and oak and yes, even apple trees, and they suggested to the fallen branches and stones and mud that they come together into a cottage. Once the cottage was built they each gave Apple a present for her birth-day: a narrow bed; a table and chair; the secrets of fire, sleep, and flight; a jug and a wash-basin; a pot and a bowl to eat from; a dress to cover herself; and, rather inexplicably from Crone, a large, polished spindle.
“She’ll find a use for it,” Crone said vaguely when the others gave her curious looks, and they didn’t press the matter, for Crone was indeed wiser than all of them.
The fairies placed Apple in her new home, set everything right, gave her twelve kisses, promised to visit often, and flew away.
She was, by then, one hour old.
In her wood Apple quickly learned that she could only suggest, unless specifically invited to do more. She suggested the trees into bud every spring and suggested they drop their leaves for winter. She suggested that the bluebells spread far and wide in the dappled sunlight. She suggested a clearing where the birds and animals tested strength and will, and suggested hollows and burrows for them to nest and tend their young. She made stews and soups in her pot, and collected rainwater in her jug from the notched boughs and the fattest wildflower blossoms. She flew high above her wood and skimmed through its underbrush inches from the ground. Her sisters visited, and taught her how to suggest flower from bud and fruit from flower; they taught her the language of bees and the silent gestures of ants; they taught her to spin rainwater into dew and fog into lacy frost with her spindle. They brought her curtains and seeds and coaxed flowers into bloom all around her, until everyone said that Apple’s wood was the prettiest in all the land.
They still didn’t know why she was, only that she was, and they often prodded her about her purpose: why was she here, what had she come to do? But the only answers Apple could give — that she was there to make her sisters tea, or make the wood bloom, or sing songs to the birds — never seemed to be enough.
Apple would wonder about this, after her sisters left. Wasn’t it enough to simply be? Why did she have to have a purpose? Even if she was a thirteenth fairy who resembled a ripe, plump apple, wasn’t it enough to simply care for the world around her?
But there was no one to answer her.
Apple heard the plodding hooves first, strangely slow and lumbering, not the usual brisk passage of travelers cutting through her wood. This was a single rider, barely clinging to his horse; later she would remember how his armor glistened with moisture, shimmering in the dawn like it was made of sunlight. If he had worn a helmet, it was now lost. His face was youthful and wan and damp with sweat, and when she drew close he squinted at her as if he could not quite believe what he was seeing. Not a local man, to look at her so strangely, and with such a richly ornamented tabard.
“Are you well?” she asked, but he only blinked at her. He smelled sour and his breath was worse, and she thought, aha, this is sickness. Her sisters had told her about sickness, such as when tree leaves emerged puckered and curled, or white mildew dusted the late blossoms.
She led the horse to her cottage and suggested it rest and graze in the clearing, and she helped the man inside and to her bed. It took much doing to divest him of the armor, but each piece seemed to reveal a new curiosity, for she had never studied a man closely before. The patterns of pores and hairs were fascinating; the way he seemed to half-sleep, muttering and drooling, was something she had only glimpsed when flying over inns and the men in their yards. Deeply flawed was how her sisters described men; they spoke darkly of other patterns, such as of doing and undoing, that they could not affect unless bade to. This one, however, seemed unburdened by such complications. The whole of his being seemed to exude a singular will, and his will at that moment was to sleep in her bed, twisting and coiling like a drowsy cat.
While the man slept she fried squash blossoms and the first onions, and suggested her loaf bake quickly, and gathered a jug’s worth of water. When she returned he was sitting up in bed, looking around with an amused expression on his face.
“I have brought you water,” she said, smiling at him. She filled her little bowl and brought it to the bed. “You are feeling better?”
He smiled back, baring lovely teeth. “I am now,” he said. He had deep blue eyes like the sky and they didn’t leave her face even as he drank the water down. How strange, to watch his throat work! She wanted to poke the lump in it, but thought that would be rude.
Instead she asked, “your horse is a fine animal. Are you perhaps a lord?”
“Lady,” he said, “in this moment, I am merely a man.” And he seized her wrist and drew her close to him. Sour sweat and breath and those bright even teeth, opening like an animal about to bite her; somewhere her bowl broke as he kissed her deeply.
(Of course he was a king. Are they not all kings, these men? Kings of domains large and small, from whom all others flow. There are no queens without kings, no brave princes or enchanted princesses, no knights to be led astray or boldly fight, no maidens to swoon and be carried off. Not even fairies, to bestow them boons of voice and body alike; to curse them, the better to make a story worth telling.)
Afterward, Apple could not remember what had happened. The time between his kiss and when he rode away, leaving her in the tousled bed, seemed to be just out of her reach — and she did not want to reach; she did not want to remember, even as she struggled to do so. What had she said, what had he done? In her mind was a darkness now, a fullness of experience shrouded and shoved to the edges of her memory.
What had he said, what had she done? Why had he come to her at all?
The memories were shrouded, but the bruises on her forearm lingered, five purpled smudges where each of his fingers had dug deep. Nothing she could suggest made them lighten; long after the pain had faded the five marks remained, and she took to wearing shawls and sweaters when her sisters visited, for how could she explain what she could not recall?
For some time the sound of horses made her start, as frightened as the young rabbits crossing her clearing. For some time she dared not leave the wood, cringed at the thought of flitting past farms and villages and the men who lived there, their strangeness now a looming thing. All the colors around her seemed to dull and dim, until she could not quite remember what the world had looked like before him. She forgot to spin the dew and make suggestions to the bluebells; her eyes skidded over the blight-curled leaves, her ears missed the agitations of the birds and animals, how they broke their rhythms and fought wantonly.
The corners of her wood began to smell of carcasses, and she did not think on it.
Her sisters, noting the changes, kept their visits brief and their conversations carefully worded, though among themselves they wondered if her true purpose was revealing itself at last. “Not Apple but Anguish,” Dusk suggested, and they bowed their heads in acknowledgment.
“Such is the weight of purpose,” Summer agreed.
“Such is the weight of being a thirteenth when we were complete,” Maiden added harshly.
Crone kept her counsel, watching in her mind’s eye as the wood around Anguish became shrouded and dark, as surely as pulling a blanket over itself, the better to hide from the world.
Her Self, in Stories
Some weeks after he rode away Anguish began dreaming: that she was a plump brown bird, feeding in a pleasantly sunny glade, when before her rose up a magnificent serpent, its scales glistening like they were made of light and its dark blue eyes as deep and wide as the sky above, and so lost was she in admiration that she did not struggle as it coiled itself around her tight, tight.
Months after and Anguish dreamed: she was snuggled in a warm den with her sisters, their furred bodies twining and pressing, their sweet heat smelling of flowers and sunlight and the first hint of rain. Everything was cradling limbs and beating hearts and sleep and safe, until Anguish became aware of a shape at the mouth of their den, a shrouded presence moving towards them, and suddenly all that was sweet and safe became a prison: she struggled to flee but she could not awaken her sisters, who clung harder and harder, suffocating her with blind affection, oblivious to her cries.
Alone in her wood Anguish dreamed, and when she woke exhausted she worried the dark spot in her mind like a loose tooth. Terrified of what lay behind it, unable to simply let it be, at times it seemed her sole purpose in the world was to break through that darkness; at other times she ran frantic through her wood, looking for any distraction to relieve her of its presence.
Thus she stumbled upon a couple twined together at the edge of her overgrown clearing where sunlight still penetrated, providing relief from the gloom. A horse paced uneasily through the stunted grass, and for a moment Anguish felt a sharp pain in her belly, so dizzying was the sight of the animal’s embroidered caparison. The same pattern, the same bright colors, more vivid than anything she had seen since that day; her eyes filled with tears, as if she had looked straight into the heart of the sun.
But the man rolling in her grass was not him. He was wrestling with a young girl who alternately giggled and squirmed, their tangled bodies crushing weeds and blossoms indiscriminately. The girl’s squeaks and squeals echoed through the wood and Anguish clapped her hands over her ears, but she could not block out their sounds.
“I tell you it’s true,” the man gasped, wiggling on top of the girl. “You cannot leave me here, I may never return!”
“Get away with you.” She slapped his arm, laughing.
“Get away with His Majesty?” At his words the girl stilled, squinting at him. “It was the king himself who told me. He came to this very wood in his youth — got separated from the lads one night after a tourney. He fell asleep here and when he awoke he was in thrall to a foul enchantress, who tried to ensnare him — ” he paused, looking around with an expression of terror. “Did you hear that?”
“I didn’t hear anything,” the girl said, but she looked uneasy as she spoke, and seemed not to notice when the man gathered her close.
“You must protect me,” he mumbled into her neck. “Only the love of a mortal will keep the enchantress at bay . . .”
Anguish could not watch, then; she could not think for the sudden emotion filling her. Foul enchantress. Around her the serpent twined until she was breathless; above her a vast shadowed shape bore down upon her wooded den. Foul enchantress. When she had only been a little fairy as round as an apple, without name or purpose.
Behind her the couple grunted and gasped and then it was over, as quick as an eyeblink. Perhaps this was her purpose? What are you Dawn had asked her, and here was an answer she could give. A foul enchantress. A creature to fear, a story to whisper, the better to cow and to force, the better to make people look with dread over their shoulders, even at the height of a sunny day.
Oh yes, that was a thing she could be.
To her trees she suggested they release their burdens, and watched as their sickened branches snapped and gave way, tumbling down upon the couple while the man bellowed and the girl shrieked with fright. To her hunters, her birds of prey and her sharp-clawed mammals, she suggested that here was new prey to worry and torment.
Like me, a voice said in her mind, whose voice was that? Anguish could not tell; she pressed her hands to her ears again, smothering the cries of the couple and the calls of the animals, smothering the wind and the horse’s wild whinnying, smothering her own whimpering breath.
It was easier, after that first day. Easier to suggest the trees grow twisted and wild, with branches like walls and fruit rotting on their boughs. Easier to suggest her hunting animals see all as prey, locals and travelers, shepherds and sheep. Easier to play her role, smiling at the messengers and merchants, farmers and knights, all stumbling eager into the brush and her beckoning arms only to recoil in terror as her wood became their prison. Her five bruises became so livid and stark they could be seen from a great distance; she spun her tears into dresses patterned with those marks, over and over and over.
Word traveled of the evil fairy in the wood, and when it did not travel far or swift enough Anguish flew to the top of her tallest tree and screamed it into the night so that even he, in the depths of his faraway castle, would hear her.
The day of the announcement Anguish awoke to a sickening chorus of distant cheers and ringing trumpets and she nearly vomited. Even before her sisters arrived, twittering with delight, she knew: knew, and felt betrayed yet again.
A royal child. The soothsayers predicted a new moon birth; the castle midwives predicted a girl; wasn’t it all the loveliest, the most glorious?
(Only Crone noticed Anguish’s misery, but she did not comment on it. Perhaps she was Anguish after all; perhaps it was her lot in life, just as it was Dusk’s to bring the cold of night, or Harvest’s to rip the fruit from the boughs.)
When the messenger arrived, bearing gold-edged envelopes with fat red seals, each trailing a fine ribbon, Anguish’s hands stayed empty, and that gave the twelve fairies pause. The moment the messenger was out of earshot Dawn gave her a severe look and asked, “What did you do?”
“What did you do?” Winter echoed. “You should be invited, no matter your purpose; you must have done something to upset him.”
Anguish met each of their gazes levelly. “What does it matter?” she asked, the scorn in her voice making them flinch. “I am Anguish after all — or so you have decided.”
At her words each of the fairies blushed and looked away, save for Crone. “What did he do?” she asked.
And for a moment Anguish felt her resolve slipping away, felt herself small and round in her dress of tears and bruises; she wanted to run to her sister, bury herself in her arms and tell her everything. But that road only led back to Apple, unwanted and without purpose and unsafe, and she was not that fairy anymore.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said.
Her twelve sisters took their leave, downcast, unable to meet her gaze; as each flew away, back to their realms of light and dark, growth and decay, each whole and content in herself, Anguish caught at Crone’s arm, staying her.
“I think I know my true name,” she said in a low voice. “I think I am Anger, sister.”
At that Crone’s mouth quirked. “For now,” she replied, and before Anger could debate the matter she flitted up into the night sky, the invitation in her hand gleaming like a distant star.
Anger had no invitation, but she soon knew the details they contained: a great feast was planned to celebrate the babe’s birth, with games and dancing through the night. Kings and noblemen would present the new princess with gifts (and more than a few offers of betrothal.)
And every fairy in the kingdom was invited to give the princess one boon.
A boon. The word lingered in Anger’s mind, all through the day and the night and the day again. A boon: an irreversible gift, a singular invitation to pronounce rather than suggest. A boon such as he had given her, such as she had been repaying year after year. For blight was pooling from her wood, stunting the crops in the neighboring fields, tainting the lakes until the reeds collapsed and the fish floated to the surface. Now no one rode through her wood without utmost cause, urging their horses lest the evil fairy snatch them away.
A different kind of boon, that.
Was she not a fairy of the kingdom, even if she hadn’t received a slip of paper?
Oh she would grant the princess a boon, one worthy of her father. The thought filled Anger’s mind until she could not unthink it; it filled in the dark absence of his visit, giving it form and substance as she stroked the marks on her arms and mouthed boon boon boon.
She trailed after her sisters on the journey to the capitol, flitting through daytime skies and across broad shimmering lakes, through woods not her own and over fields that ripened in their wake. For once she did not undo the goodness her sisters created; she kept her gaze ahead, her mind’s eye on the beautiful terrible thought within herself. A beautiful, terrible thought, but was it more terrible than what awaited the child, with such a man for her father? What torments might he inflict on her, what kind of husband would he force her to accept? A lout from his own lands? Or would he barter her with some distant king for land and gold, no matter what kind of man he was?
It was twilight when Anger arrived at the castle. To a one the guards looked at her in fearful confusion, unsure of whether to admit or bar her, unsure if they could keep her at bay; she let herself savor the moment, that one small, apple-round fairy could so cow them.
Then she suggested they let her enter, and they stepped aside.
Inside all was light: hundreds of candles, perhaps thousands, all burning. A fortune in wax. For the first time Anger understood just what power lay behind royalty: not just the liveried knights riding to every corner of the kingdom, pushing its borders ever outward; not just the battles she knew were waged in distant lands, sometimes painting the sky in her own wood with a haze of far-travelled smoke. It was in the thousands of candles, when so many would never own one; it was in the cascades of tapestry adorning the walls, when so many shared but one rough blanket between them.
The crowd parted for her, the sumptuousness of their clothing almost blinding; Anger resisted the urge to raise a hand to shield her eyes. They looked everywhere but at her. Was she so terrifying? Or perhaps it wasn’t fear but disgust, perhaps they could see the bruises through her dress, perhaps they wondered as her own sisters had wondered.
What did you do, what did you do?
The crowd parted, bodies flowing to the far sides of the room as if her taint surrounded her like a cloud. They parted in a wave down the long, long hall, flowing like rivers in springtime when they ran high only to break around the largest rocks. She was a rock now, she could see herself from above, and all the silver and gold was breaking around her. Cutting through it all, the candles and the tapestries, the acres of gilt and velvet and deep-dyed wool, all breaking over the rock that was Anger Anguish Apple.
At last before her a dais rose like a filigree mountain, two towering gold thrones and the golden bassinet between them. On either side her sisters were staring, staring. On their thrones the queen looked merely pale and exhausted, but his expression was one of utter shock, one that Anger found herself mimicking. He was so much older. The smiling young lad was gone, replaced by a careworn old man on whose lined face was dawning a profound, sorrowful understanding. She had known time was passing, years of it; she had not thought on how profoundly it might leave its mark. For a moment, doubt ran through her, a tremor that echoed back, back, until she was standing in her little cottage with its curtains fluttering in the wind and realizing it was just her and this strange young man —
She raised her chin, banishing the memory back to the darkness. “I am invited to give a boon,” she said, and her voice was strong and true. “Every fairy in the kingdom can give one boon to the princess.”
“Anguish,” one of her sisters said in a low voice — Spring? Seed? She could not say, and in truth it did not matter.
“The princess will be your undoing,” she began, her voice ringing out. “All you have achieved, all your value, she will strip from you. She”
Anger looked down at herself, at her gown spun of her own tears, so many tears, clinging to her body in gossamer sorrow, mottled with the mark of his grasp. “She will take everything from you, using nothing more than a spindle.”
She looked back up at the king and felt a frisson of pleasure. For his face was a picture of terror, so vivid in its silent emotion that it eclipsed all around it: the gasps and cries and rising clamor of the nobility thronging the room; the ghastly expressions on her sisters’ faces; the unholy squalling as the queen dragged the bassinet close, away from Anger’s words. All nothing compared to his terrified expression. Like a man staring into an abyss — ! That she could create such a thing was a kind of power she had never tasted before, it seemed to make something stir in her belly. She felt as if the darkness in her mind was spreading, growing —
And then a voice said, calmly, “I too have a boon to give.”
Crone stepped before the dais, severing Anger’s view of the king. It made Anger come back to herself with a shudder, as if she had been bodily struck.
Her sister raised an eyebrow at her, then looked at the king. “I cannot undo my sister’s words,” she said. “But I can amend them. All that my sister said will indeed come to pass. But afterwards? Something even greater will take the place of all your losses.”
There was a roaring in Anger’s ears, a sound that wasn’t without but within. She wanted to weep but she couldn’t make the tears come; she wanted to scream but her voice was suddenly a small thing. All she could do was look Crone in the eye and use one of the words a man had called her, when she had suggested his horse throw him into her wood, when she had watched as her wood took him into itself.
“Cunt,” she said, and flew from the castle into the deepening night.
Her Words, and Their Meanings
For six months afterwards, the king’s men went forth and confiscated every spindle within his borders, burning them in great pyres in the castle yard. Spindles were banned at the borders, and possession of a spindle became a punishable crime. Anger watched it all with interest: had not Crone turned her curse into a gift, wouldn’t he welcome such an outcome? Yet still the fires burned.
Anger watched, and waited. But no horses came to Anger’s wood, no one disturbed her. Still she waited to see what would come of her words, watching from atop her tallest tree, clutching the large, polished spindle that Crone had given her, long ago.
He came down the overgrown path to her cottage, picking his way through the ivy-choked weeds. On foot this time, leading his horse, his posture erect.
At first Anger did not look closely at the horse, so startled was she that he had come without a retinue. A small, hopeful part of her thought apology; a more sensible part of her thought the spindle. But then she looked at the horse and saw the slim young girl bouncing in the saddle, her golden braids rippling around her laughing face, and the part of Anger that had dared to hope fell silent once more.
She hid the spindle on a shelf in her kitchen, then put on her dress of tears and unbuttoned the sleeve to show the marks on her arm, as livid and purpling as they had been that day. Calmly she suggested that the clouds occlude the sun: just a suggestion, but he didn’t need to know that, and it made for a most dramatic entrance.
She swept out of her cottage, her head held high for she was Anger. This was her job, her role, just as her sisters brought the sun across the sky and coaxed the grain from the tilled soil. She walked out, replete in her purpose, and unflinchingly met his gaze.
“What do you want?” she asked.
He took a step back, clearly startled; the movement pleased her. “Only to talk,” he said, then before she could speak, “Rose! Rose, come here.”
Princess Rose dismounted nimbly from the horse and ran to her father’s — no, to the king’s side, it was better to think of him as such. A king first, a man second. Lady, in this moment I am merely a man. That much Anger remembered clearly, for the lie it was.
He brought the princess in front of him, crossing his arms protectively over her. She looked up at Anger with wide grey eyes, the same shade of grey as the dawn in her wood, not a hint of fear in them. Instead she said, “I’m Rose. Who are you?”
Faced with that small, round face, its open curiosity, the word Anger died on her lips. Instead she found herself saying, heavily, “I was called Apple, once.”
“That’s a lovely name!” Rose clapped her hands. “Apple blossoms are one of my favorite flowers, aren’t they, Papa?”
“Yes,” the king said softly. “Yes, they are.” He took a breath. “Apple, you must undo this.” His voice was trembling. “We have just concluded Rose’s betrothal to a firstborn prince, a more advantageous match than we dared to hope for. Our joined lands will be an empire greater than anything in the world, and with access to the southern seas our trade will increase beyond reckoning. Would you take all that from our people?”
He was staring at Anger with a singular, miserable intensity, and she understood then: Crone had the right of it, she knew what I did not. That her mitigation would have been a true boon to any ruler, save this king.
Rose had wiggled out from beneath his arms. Now, suddenly, her fingers ran along Anger’s waist, just skimming the full folds of her skirts. “It’s such a pretty dress,” she said, frowning a little, “and yet it’s a very sad dress, isn’t it?”
“Rose,” the king said sharply. “Rose, come back here.”
“It is a very sad dress,” Anger agreed, taking Rose’s hand and moving it away. The girl’s fingers twined with hers, warm and soft. “Not for princesses, I think.” She looked at the king again, but he was staring at her hand clasping Rose’s, with its bracelet of bruises.
“You never said no,” he whispered.
For a moment she gaped at him, astonished; and then she was Anger again. “I never had to use that word, before you,” she spat back. “I didn’t know how.”
In her mind the darkness shuddered as if rupturing at last, and she couldn’t bear it, not now, not like this. She suggested a storm, she suggested her fury be echoed in her wood that was both within and without her, a reflection of its foul mistress —
But then a sound came, light and high, so strange it made Anger pause. She looked down at Rose and the girl was laughing, open-mouthed with delight, as the first raindrops spattered her face. “Rain!” she shrieked, throwing her free arm out. “Rain, Papa! Oh, isn’t it lovely!”
She broke free from Anger’s grasp and began hopping up and down, trying to catch drops in her mouth, laughing as they caught in her eyelashes. Anger could only watch as if in a stupor: first those words, then her still-simmering rage, and now this. Joy, she thought stupidly, staring at Rose’s ecstatic face. Why was there no Joy in their number? Why had she been born Anger, if there was no Joy to balance her?
I think I am Anger, sister
“There is no greater future than the one I have worked for,” the king said, his voice driving. “We must expand if we are to quell the threats to our borders. It has taken years to negotiate this marriage. If you cannot undo it, I know you can amend it! Say . . . Say Rose causes me to lose my horse, or a district, or . . .”
He trailed off, but she did not see his expression; she was watching Rose’s face, how in its curves she could see the first hints of the woman she would become.
“Ask me for another boon,” she said.
The king recoiled. “What?”
“Ask me for another boon. For Rose.” The name made Anger’s lips round, like a kiss. “Or do not, and bid your empire farewell —
“Give my daughter a boon,” he interrupted hoarsely. “Please. Please.”
Knee-deep in weeds Rose raised her cupped hands to the sky, giggling as she tried to keep the rainwater from escaping between her fingers. And what of her when she grew older, then? What bruises might ring her arms?
Anger took her time with her words, speaking them as much to the small dancing figure as to the king. “The princess will undo all that you have done, with nothing more than a mere spindle. But the greatness that comes after? It too will be her doing, not yours. You will leave no legacy save her.”
Rose ran back to her and tugged on her arm. “Apple, Apple, let’s dance in the rain!” And when Anger would not dance she ran about, spinning wildly and shrieking with laughter, her gown and hair richly spattered.
She realized then that she had been so distracted by Rose she had forgotten to note the king’s reaction to her pronouncement, missed that moment of dark triumph. Now she looked at him and saw only a guarded fury on his face, and she found that she did not care.
Anger shrugged, inclined her head, and went back to her cottage and shut the door on them: on the king, on his horse gently nosing through the ivy, on the golden figure of Rose who was Joy still dancing as the heavens poured down.
(And would it even matter in the end, Anger wondered? What could a princess create, when she was nothing more than a bargaining piece for her father? What could she hope for, save that her betrothed would be a decent man? Still Anger’s eyes kept straying to the spindle Crone had given her; still she knew that what had been said must come to pass, even if she could not see how.)
Rose lingered in Anger’s memory, sun-bright against the scrim of her wood. Though she did not consciously decide to do so, again and again Anger found herself flitting along the castle walls, watching Princess Rose. Here, she gossiped with her ladies while they tended a little garden; here, she rode forth to deliver alms; here, she received her subjects in her father’s hall, giving each of their stories her utmost attention. Always doing is our princess, they said in the streets, dabbing their eyes. For the time was coming soon for Princess Rose to leave them: a castle on the southern border was part of her dowry, to someday become the capitol of the imminent empire.
Had Anger’s words somehow created this, added impetus to the king’s negotiations, the better to send away the daughter who threatened him? Yet every spindle had been destroyed; the king’s guards searched every person and cart on the borders to ensure no more would enter. There was no threat, save for what Anger harbored in her kitchen. And if Rose left without incident, if the curse played itself out years from now, perhaps a generation hence? That she could reflect so dispassionately on these matters surprised Anger, but only just. It had been many falls of the leaves since the king first rode into her wood. The dark spot in her memory felt almost normal now; she had grown accustomed, even fond, of her weeds and rotting wood and gowns of tears.
Once a bright, golden creature had danced in the rain, and it would be a sorry thing if her words somehow smothered that joy.
No matter that the same was done to you? the voice whispered in her mind.
It had been a long time since any dared to venture into her wood, and it was with a sense of inevitability that Anger opened her door and saw the horses crowding the weed-choked path, so hemmed in by the brambles they seemed to form one looming, many-headed creature. The combined patterns of livery and gleaming metal momentarily blinding; she threw up an arm to shield her eyes. For a brief, panicked moment, all her old dreams came back and it was the glistening serpent again, only with one eye dark, the other vibrantly golden.
Then the golden eye rippled, and called a halt, and Anger blinked and saw Princess Rose. She raised one hand in an uncertain greeting while the rider beside her held the bridle of her horse.
“Apple,” she said. “We would beg a moment to rest here, and water? Only we were riding and became lost.”
Anger took a moment before replying, trying to ground herself. She was no little bird anymore, and this no fearsome beast, only a retinue of young nobles. But the uncertain gesture, the stilted words — and how could they be lost? Half the kingdom knew the road that ran nearby. You could see the smoke of several villages by simply climbing a tree.
(Rose’s hair was, impossibly, even a brighter gold than her last visit. Who gave her that gift? Blossom, Anger suspected. It would like her sister to waste an entire boon on the right shade of blond.)
“Of course,” she said, bowing. “My cottage is at your disposal, your highness.”
At her words the party began to dismount, the women exclaiming as brambles caught at their skirts, the men looking uneasily at the twisting, stunted trees. A different livery on each — the women part of Rose’s retinue, the men clearly linked to the one who now helped Rose down, his arm sliding snakelike around her waist as he lifted her onto what remained of the path.
“If I could refresh myself, inside?” She moved quickly towards Anger; when the man made to follow her she spun about, smiling brightly. “My lord, in this I should be attended by a woman alone.”
“Then you should bring your ladies,” he replied. A chin that preceded him, a clipped accent to his words. “They say strange things happen in these woods, and speak ill of a fairy who lives in it.” He looked hard at Anger as he spoke the last.
“They are fools,” Rose said. She swept into Anger’s cottage, waving a dismissive hand over her shoulder at the other women, who receded like a flock of injured birds.
Anger followed her, shutting the door behind them. In the dim light all Rose’s brightness seemed to vanish. In her place stood a disconsolate girl, shifting from one foot to another, and seeing her wilt so made Anger’s stomach clench.
“I will be brief,” Rose said. “I don’t wish to impose on you. We have imposed too much already, I believe.”
Anger just looked at her. Those soft hands twisting, the tremor in her lower lip.
“I leave in a fortnight, and it seemed important . . .” she trailed off, then began again. “I wanted you to know that I understand, about the curse. Your boon, I mean. I would have done the same if I were you. He should never have . . .” But words failed her again and she turned away, wiping roughly at her cheeks.
For a moment Anger was stunned: had he told her? What had he said, what did he remember? But before she could think how to ask Rose continued in a shuddering voice, “I — I heard the maids. When they thought I was asleep. Talking about how he was when he was younger, and now — my mother is not well, she, she dreads my departure, she weeps endlessly and cannot sleep. And the maids were terrified that he might visit them again . . .”
She began crying bitterly, and Anger understood then that the king too oozed a taint from his very being, as surely as if he wore the fabric of his violence. Still Rose wept, and Anger looked around for something to offer her, only to find herself bewildered again: her kitchen was dusty, the jug long empty. Why had she not noticed before? What had she been subsisting on?
Grief, the voice said wisely in her ear.
Still the princess wept, wiping at her eyes with a handkerchief; Anger took an uncertain step forward, hesitated, and said instead, “Your companion. He is your betrothed? The prince your father spoke of?”
The princess nodded, blowing her nose.
“Should I call for him?”
“No!” The word nearly a shout; she took a shaking breath and wiped her nose again. When at last she had mastered herself she said, “what do they look like?”
“Pardon?” Anger blinked, startled.
“Spindles.” She pronounced the word with a hushed reverence. “Only, I have never seen one — that is, I glimpsed one in a painting, but I would not know one if it was placed before me, either to avoid it, or . . . to avoid it.”
She blushed as she spoke, but Anger thought she saw something in her reddened eyes, a gleam of something harder. Wordlessly she went to the shelf, pushing aside the dusty pot and mended bowl to find Crone’s gift, as clean as if she had polished it that morning.
“They look like this,” she said, holding it out.
Rose gaped, astonished into silence; her hand drifted forward; abruptly she turned away.
“Rose,” Anger began, what did she want to say? So many things she could not find words for. “If you want me to, to destroy it — ”
But she was interrupted by the cottage door opening, the doorway filled by a large figure in gold-trimmed livery, his chin entering the room before him. The prince’s face was smooth and young and glistening with sweat. He seemed to fill the room, blocking out all light. It was suddenly warm; when had it become so warm?
“My lady,” the prince said. “I thought perhaps something had happened.”
Anger’s breath was catching in her throat. He was so close. The spindle in her grasp.
“Nothing save conversation,” Rose replied, the bright smile back on her face. “I would have some more time with my dear friend Apple. You may ride on if you like.”
“Certainly not.” He looked around the cottage, his lip curling. “You will come away now. This place is . . . unsuitable.” He uttered the word with distaste.
The smell of him. Had her cottage become smaller? Her breath was catching, she felt dizzy; Rose looked at her in alarm, save that she was suddenly far away — yet how could that be, when her cottage was shrinking?
“In a moment,” Rose said, but her voice was muffled, distant.
“Now,” the prince barked.
Rose’s hands twining with Apple’s, her grey eyes like the dawn in her wood, her hair like the breath of the sun from when she was born, all that warm, cradling light . . .
“Rose!” The prince clapped his hands. “Rose, come!”
“Everything will be all right,” Rose said softly. Her lips brushed Apple’s cheek.
The prince stepped forward, his hand outstretched. Were his eyes blue? Apple begged the chair fall please fall and it obediently tipped backwards, making him stumble. With a grunt he swiped for Rose, seizing her wrist and dragging her to him —
and then the spindle was gone from Apple’s grasp as Rose spun about and struck the prince in the head with a too-large fist.
He fell to his knees with a bellow. There was a flurry of cries from without and suddenly her cottage was full of people, clamoring and exclaiming, pushing Apple further and further into the corner. Like a wave crashing in, filling every inch of the space. She heard the twittering of Rose’s ladies and the muttering of the prince’s men and Apple covered her face with her hands and wept, her tears overwhelming her in their sudden bright pain, like some festering thing had been lanced at last.
And when at last her crying subsided, leaving her aching and hollow, she lowered her hands and saw that her cottage was empty, the chair neatly tucked beneath the table once more.
There was no sign of the spindle.
(There was no empire, of course.)
(In fact, there were no marriages at all. Word went around that Rose was quite unfit, with many allusions made to her state of mind, her womanliness or lack thereof, her overbearing father, dozens of stories and speculations boiling down into the succinct mad bitch. Which a princess can easily be, if required. Especially if it means ending border campaigns and byzantine negotiations and finally getting back to ruling.)
Apple heard the horses, but distantly at first. Not the plodding gait of the lost but a brisk, purposeful trot; still, it gave her enough time to finish her conversation. She had been listening to a large, spreading oak, listening to its requests: a sick branch that needed removing, a pine tree jostling it for some much-needed light. A new thing for her, this listening. Everything had a voice, why hadn’t she realized that before? Everything had a voice, and needs, and desires, and she had imposed her own for far too long. She had made enough suggestions for quite a while; it was time to give others a turn.
Dusting her hands, she flitted back to the clearing by her cottage, watching as two horses drew near. Now she heard the gay little bells swinging from their harnesses, a sweet kind of music she had never heard before; it suited the bouncing golden braids of the first rider, a single girlish touch to the otherwise womanly figure.
(Music, Apple remembered, was one of Spring’s passions.)
When they drew close Queen Rose dismounted lightly and then hesitated, shifting from foot to foot. “Apple,” she said.
Apple inclined her head. Only a little older, but Rose had aged in other ways; such, she supposed, was the burden of rule. Still her eyes were as grey as the first light of dawn; still she carried her brightness within her, as bright as the breath of the sun itself.
“I’ve been wanting to bring you something.” She drew a pouch out of her saddlebag and held it out. “As a thank you.”
“A thank you?” Apple took the pouch carefully, reverently. Inside were dozens of small, dark shapes, spheres that tapered to little points.
“Bluebell seeds.” Rose looked around with a smile. “I have always loved this wood — it feels so free, and yet so safe. But no wood this lovely should be without bluebells.”
Apple found herself smiling as well, as she had not done in some time. “I don’t understand. You have nothing to thank me for.”
“Other than the means to rid myself of my boorish suitor?” Rose laughed, then sobered. “If you had not spoken as you did, at my birth? I would never have believed my maids, Apple. I would never have been able to see my father clearly.”
The words were earnest, she could see it in Rose’s face, and yet . . . “I didn’t do it for you,” she whispered. “I had no caring for you then. I wasn’t even this . . . I was Anger, in that moment.”
“That may be,” Rose said. “But you were also brave, and honest, and I am grateful for it.”
Apple could only nod. Everything was so wonderfully bright, in that moment; it closed her throat, it seemed to fill her from head to toe, it softened that lingering darkness in her mind to a shadow. Even the pattern of her gown seemed more vibrant, more like blossoms than bruises, though she knew her wrist would be forever marked, just as she knew the shadow would never vanish entirely. Nor did she want it to.
Rose dabbed at her eyes. “I saw your apple trees are blooming.”
“They asked to,” Apple said simply.
Still Rose hesitated, shifting again; at last she blurted out, “it is a lonely thing to be queen.”
Apple looked at the other rider but Rose waved her hand dismissively. “He’s to protect me, nothing more. Though we have fewer threats now; everyone wants our textiles, not our antagonism.” Then, more shyly, “I would not blame you, if you saw me as you saw my father. Only — only I need a friend? Someone who cares enough to be angry, and brave, and honest.” Her eyes were welling again. “I presumed to call you friend, once . . . and I have thought of you often . . . Apple?”
Once a thirteenth, apple-plump fairy had believed it was enough to care. Once a girl named Rose who was Joy had danced in the rain.
What are you?
I am Apple . . . and I am Love.
Apple took Rose’s hand in hers.
About the Author
L. S. Johnson
About the Narrator
Tatiana Grey is a critically acclaimed actress of stage, screen, and the audio booth. She has been nominated for dozens of fancy awards but hasn’t won a single damned thing. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. See more about Tatiana at www.tatianagrey.com