In this country, they chop off your hands for stealing. Chop them off, and hang them around your neck.
“Might as well cut out your soul.” That’s what one old man told me, who used to beg in the temple forecourt. He had been a Master of his Art; out of respect the other beggars saved him the warmest spot, on the far side of the courtyard from the fountain, in the thin, watery sun that washed the mosaics from noon until well after tea. Condemned thieves were only required to wear their hands until the flesh dropped from the bones, but he still wore his—in sorrow, in pride, I don’t know. Bleached and dry, they rattled on his breast with every wheezing breath like the long strings of beads the ladies at court don for dancing at the Summer Festival. Long, thin finger bones held together by withered sinews: with such hands as those, no wonder he’d been skilled. The stumps had never healed properly, but oozed blood and water through the pinkish bandages about his wrists, crying, perhaps, for the companions lost at the single stroke of an axe. It was a marvel he was still alive, after all that time weeping.
“Might as well cut out your soul.” He winked up through the shaggy, grey mats of his hair with one bright, colourless eye. “But then, you’d know more about that than me.”
I gave him a silver penny and said nothing. I knew nothing about it at all. Not then.
I never stole her, despite what they say. She came of her own will. It was only later, when the royal family got involved and the Duke, her father, got a taste of the things money could buy, that they started to put about the rumours of abduction and enchantment. The Duchy had been poor for a long time—since his grandfather’s grandfather’s time—and he was tired of patched hose and cold, dark halls and food unfit for a peasant to eat. A royal connection could change all that.
I think the Prince caught sight of her as she made an offering at the temple one time when he and his followers rode about the kingdom in search of amusement, game, wenches, that sort of thing. He was smitten at once. Probably only the sanctity of the place kept him from snatching her away from the altar and throwing her over his saddle right then. Maybe that would have been better: a quick tumble, no ties. Harsh to say that rape would have been preferable to what came instead. Preferable to me, anyway, but perhaps that’s only my selfish heart speaking. After everything, I still love her.
She was beautiful, of course. She still is, but I hear that her beauty has become colder since her marriage. There was something of coldness in it even then, with her hair the pale gold of a sunbeam across snow, and her eyes the blue of ice. Women with such looks are often hard. Not she. I have seen her weep at a crushed flower, at a moth that flew into the fire. It rent one’s heart, the way she sorrowed at each little thing. No one could see her weep without wanting to comfort her.
They say she wept, that day at the temple. It was the anniversary of her mother’s death.
Her tears caught the Prince’s eye and held it. They say he stared at her as though she were one of the twelve maiden saints who smile down on the altar from their bright windows of coloured glass.
He tried to forget her. It is remarkable that he could not; he is not the sort who pines over people he has left behind, opportunities passed by the way. He is not the sort who remembers.
The King, his father, was opposed to the match. The lands that would come to her after the Duke’s death were small, distant, and without the advantage of place that a King looks for when choosing a bride for his heir. She had no dowry but for a girdle of pearls her mother had left her, the only jewel in the Duchy that had not been sold or pawned to keep her family living in some small semblance of comfort. She had been wearing it, that day in the temple.
The Prince was adamant. I think he would not have insisted on marriage if he could have gotten her any other way. But by the time he found his way back to his own lands—perhaps even before he left the temple, and her weeping over the offering to her mother’s spirit—the story had gone ‘round of the way he had looked upon the Duke’s daughter. If she disappeared from her father’s house, wrapped in a sack and hustled away by night, fingers would point to the royal city. He could not even offer her a place as his handmaid, which is what Princes and other powerful men are wont to call their concubines. The Duke’s family, though poor, was noble and very old.
I think if it had not been for the stories, he would have forgotten her. I think when he heard that he had fallen down in a swoon at the sight of her, that his faithful servant had carried him from the temple, and that he lay in his palace near death, languishing of love, he believed it.
His father, the King, finally tired of the arguments, tired of having his son pout and whine when presented with prospective brides more wealthy, more suitably placed. The Prince gathered gifts and retinue and returned to the Duchy in state, to present his suit to the Duke.
But by that time, she was already mine.
What could the Duke say? That his daughter had left the house a year before to live with the Witch of the Woods? That she preferred the caresses of another woman to the Prince’s sword-callused hands and the silk sheets of the royal bed? To the prospect of, one day, being Queen? You do not say these things to the son of your overlord. Not if you want to keep title and lands. Not if you want to keep your head.
I wonder, sometimes, what would have happened had he told the truth. Would the Prince have come to our house, intent on beguiling her away from me with rich gifts and soft words? He might have succeeded, for by that time things between her and me were not as they had begun. More likely, he would have come with spear raised and sword drawn, to wrest her away by force and leave me in my blood.
Maybe that, too, would have been better.
The Duke did not tell the truth. What he said, everyone now knows, and many believe. His daughter, he said, had been stolen away by the Black Enchanter of the Southlands, who kept her in a hut on the borders of the Duchy. He would happily bestow her hand upon the one who was brave and daring enough to rescue her.
It was just the challenge the Prince needed.
I met her in the spring, on the grounds of the Ducal manor, where I had come with herbs and salves for the gamekeeper’s wife (there was still some game to be kept), who was down with the kind of fever that comes from thinking the winter is further past than it is, and going out of doors wearing too little.
I think she was eighteen, six years younger than I.
She was intrigued by me. She had seen me about—everyone had, even if they did not invite me into their houses—but never so close. She stared and stared at my dark skin, my curly hair, and my black eyes. I was not offended. They do not have such traits in this country, and some curiosity is only natural. I think she meant nothing by it. I think not.
I can’t remember what we talked about.
A month later, she came to fetch me. Her little dog was in pup, having trouble. She could have sent a groom or page, but she came herself.
The dog died. She cried over it, over the young, malformed and early, that I could not save. I held her, smoothed her hair.
In my country, they would have called it an omen, that the first time I felt her strong, young body shudder against mine was in grief, not joy.
Later, she brought me a basket of dried fruit, the last of the winter—payment, she said, for my services.
She visited once or twice more. Then she came and did not leave. It was spring, and all things were in heat after the long cold.
I remember her body in the firelight, the way it painted her long golden hair the red of blood and flame. I remember her skin next to mine, the pale beside the dark, as if I were her shadow. There was a fleece before the hearth; we lay on it a single creature with four legs, four arms, and four breasts, like the goddess of my own far country. I knew then where She had been born, Who exists only for women and despises the love of men who would chain Her with silk and make Her what She is not.
Those were the happy times, over too soon.
She tired of me first. I saw it and did not want to see. I felt myself growing older by the minute; I was lonely and willing to see a life mate in every smile or sigh.
Why she did not leave me then, I shall never know. Perhaps because I was her first lover, and she believed that old tale of first and only, as if that spark of wakening could last forever. She was young enough that forever seemed not so long to her. Or, maybe, she was too young, too inexperienced, to read the signs of ending, but saw them and didn’t know what they meant. The people in her life had been there all her life—father, cook, nurse—and she had no knowledge of the ones who come and are gone. Or maybe something in me, some touch, some softness, reminded me of her mother, and she could not bear a second loss.
I don’t know. Whatever. She stayed.
I should have sent her away. Why do we try to hold what is past? Each thing comes in its season, and only we, of all Earth’s creatures, will not let go. I loved her, though her voice seemed not so sweet, nor her skin seem so soft, though her lips were sometimes turned away.
What did we quarrel about? Little things. A broken sandal strap, a lost stocking, a crumb left on a plate after washing. Nothing. Anything that would cover the words we were too afraid to speak, to know. Why don’t you love me anymore? Why can’t I leave you? What is this enchantment that snares us both and will not let us go?
It was after one such quarrel that I did it. I did it right in front of her, meaning to hurt. I wanted her to ask me what it was I was doing. She was always curious about such things. She asked; she couldn’t help it.
“I’m taking out my soul and hiding it, so you can’t hurt me anymore,” I told her.
She turned away from me, went back to washing the dishes, a task our quarrel had interrupted.
I gathered the things I needed for the spell and spread them on the fleece before the hearth, where I had once spread myself for her. It seems strange, now, that I had them all at hand: the rare herbs, the egg, the thread of seven strands, the flint knife, as if I had been waiting all my life for the excuse to perform this one great magic.
I don’t know if I expected it to work or not. I don’t know how much I remembered, and how much I invented on the spot.
She watched me over her shoulder. I felt her flinch when I took the finger. At that point I would have stopped, but it was too late.
There was no blood.
When it was done, I wrapped the egg that now held my soul in silk and locked it in a little box I had bought, without knowing why, at the Harvest Fair. The key I hung on a chain around my neck. I would never take it off. That I swore. It was a test of my will, to have it there, so close, dangling like a second heart between my breasts.
I took up the box and left the house. She put down the dishrag and followed me. I thought I should have forbidden her, but all at once it did not matter to me, whether she knew where I had hidden my soul or not. Nothing mattered at all.
In the dark, I went down the little path through the woods to the sty where I kept the old sow. She squealed once at my approach; then, when she knew it was I, subsided into contented grunts. With strangers she was savage as a dragon. Just last winter, she had mauled a village boy who had tried to get past her to the henhouse at the far end of her enclosure, bent on stealing a dinner of eggs and fowl. Her angry cries had ripped me from my bed in time to save the lad’s leg.
I felt bad about it, and sent him away, bandaged and wary, full of tales of the demon watchdog that the Wood Witch kept. No one else tried to steal from me after that, though the winter was a hard one.
He could have had the eggs, had he asked.
My lover stayed outside the sty. The sow had never gotten used to her. Perhaps I should have taken that as a sign.
I climbed the ladder to the henhouse. It was on stilts; the sow would have gone after the hens, had she been able to reach them.
The sow stood at the base of the ladder, staring up after me. After a minute, I heard her sink ponderously into the moist, manure-soft dark under the henhouse. I heard the high, childish squeals of the piglets greeting their mother, the sucking sounds as their tiny snouts found her row of nipples.
I breathed feathers, chicken shit and straw. My eyes watered with the acrid air. This was the closest I could get to crying, now that the spell had done its work.
The farthest nest box was home to a blind old bird that had long since stopped laying. It was a grief to her, and I had thought several times of consigning her to the soup pot, to end her misery. Now I was glad I hadn’t.
I slipped the box beneath her. She roused briefly, clucking, and settled back to sleep. It seemed to me that her beak curved into a smile at having something to set upon again.
When I emerged from the henhouse, my lover was gone. I noticed this—which once would have made my throat close with anxiety, imagining her lost in the wood at night, imagining that I might never see her again—with barely a shrug.
I walked around the wood for a long time, experiencing what it was like to be without a soul. There was no fear, no sorrow, no joy or anger, or any relief or sadness that these things were gone. I think it was not even strange to me but seemed as if it had always been.
Back at the house, the dishes were done and put away. She was in bed, not asleep—I could tell that by her breathing—but waiting. When I got in beside her, she reached for me. I could see she had been crying.
I took her in my arms and smoothed her hair, because I remembered that I had done this before. I felt nothing.
After a time, we slept.
The quarrels stopped, after that. Our life was…. It is hard to say what it was. We lived, day-to-day, as we had done since spring. She kept the house and cooked for us, a skill she had learned since coming to me. I carried medicines around the village, which I traded for bread, or greenstuffs, or a haunch of meat from the slaughter. I was less welcome than I had been, but I did not notice it then. It was she who told me that the villagers found me altered and strange. I smiled less, and the smiles that came were wooden and forced. I told no stories at the bedsides of the sick, as I had been accustomed to do.
I heard her and did not care. The key to the box dangled between my breasts. I could not remember what it was for.
Autumn came, and winter. We lived, from day to day, as we had done. Sometimes we made love. Sometimes we did not.
We talked less. Evenings I watched her moving about the house, putting things in order. I watched the way her skirts flowed about her ankles as she walked. I watched the way the firelight reflected off her unbound hair as she sat by the hearth, combing it, braiding it for the night. Once in a while it seemed that these visions should mean something to me, should stir me, somehow.
Early in the spring, a messenger came from the next village. The headman’s wife was lying in; there was some trouble about the birth, and I was needed.
I think it was while I was away that the Prince found her.
I wonder what she told him.
She could have gone with him then. There was nothing to stop her. She could have gone long before. But she wanted me to notice. She wanted me to care.
I was gone a week. When I returned, there was a brightness about her that I had not seen in a long time, like the brightness of the sun on snow that brings a thaw. I thought she was happy to see me, or, at least, that she was happy for the gift of silver the headman had given me. His wife was well, and the babes strong, twin boys.
She could not wait to take me to bed.
I would like to say that I knew what she had planned. I would like to say I knew it and let it happen anyway. There is nobility in accepting a grim fate. There is power in allowing what you cannot fight.
I did not know.
I slept heavily, tired from love and a long journey. I didn’t feel her slip the chain from my neck, remove the key, and replace it.
When I woke, late in the morning, I knew there was something different. It was not until I saw the chain dangling between my breasts, limp and empty as a spent male member, that I knew what it was.
I imagine her slipping from our bed and rushing, barefoot, through the house, out the door, to where the Prince waited for her. I imagine her taking his hand as he covered her with kisses, leading him along the dark path to the pigsty.
I imagine his sword, flashing in the moonlight.
I saw the sow first. She had been gutted, less neatly than a butcher does it, but just as effectively. Her entrails spilled across the muddy yard like a string of pearls.
The henhouse was all blood, and feathers, and bodies thrown here and there in heaps, nests ransacked. Broken eggs leaked clear fluid and smears of yolk like putrid matter from pierced yellow eyes.
There was no need for all that. He did it to be cruel.
The old blind hen that had guarded my soul was in pieces.
They were waiting for me outside. His sword was still drawn, but he had wiped clean any evidence of the carnage. He stood a pace behind her, more than willing to let her brave the wrath of the Black Enchantress.
I wonder that he did not laugh, seeing me all barefoot in my nightgown, smeared with the muck of the pigsty, with straw in my hair.
She came up to me and I saw that she held one last, unbroken egg.
“I am going now,” she said.
“I want you to know why,” she said.
And she smashed the egg, right in the center of my forehead.
She backed away, wiping her sticky hand on the front of her skirt. I remember thinking she would not have to worry about the stain; she would have much finer ones, now.
That was the last thought I was able to have for some time.
In those moments just after my soul returned to me, I lived my entire life. Every joy came rushing back to me, every pain. The last months, the ones that had passed since I spelled my soul into its fragile hiding place, I saw as if for the first time.
Mostly, I saw her. I saw the tears that had gone unnoticed, the smiles that had gone unanswered. The meals eaten in silence. The nights of sitting by the fire, alone.
I used to comb her hair for her, when we first met. The hot silk on my rough fingers, the sweet strands at my lips. I used to….
I thought she had changed, but it was I who had changed. I hid my soul from her before ever I locked it away in the egg, in the box.
It was I who taught her to hurt.
They were married. The old King died suddenly. Now she is Queen.
The new King, her Prince, was devoted to her until she grew huge with their first child. Now he rides about the land as he once did, seeking amusement, game, and wenches. They say she takes lovers from time to time, preferring lads with curly, dark hair. She gives them handsome presents, and does not expect much of them. I taught her that, also.
The story goes that when the soul-egg was broken on the Black Enchanter’s forehead, he turned into a cloud of smoke and flew shrieking to Hell.
I think Hell is what you make it.
The headman of the far village is generous. He does not mind that his wife keeps a silent, dark-skinned servant. He remembers that I saved his twins. They are big boys now, and have a sister.
I remember her sometimes, often in the winter, when the sun is pale yellow on the snow-covered hill, and the ice drips blue from the eaves.
Mostly I remember the old thief, sitting in the sun in the temple forecourt. I see his bright eye, winking up through the shaggy mats of his grey hair, his toothless grin. I see the bones of his hands like stiff white jewels around his neck, and I rub the scar where my little finger once was.
It hurts, sometimes, now, when the weather is bad.
Might as well cut out your soul.