by Joanna Hoyt
This is how it was in the beginning, though they kept it se-cret even from me. This is the tale my mother never told me:
The fire roared. The thick curtains shut out wind and rain. The king and queen sat side by side, shivering, not touching, not speaking, staring at the door.
The old woman entered along with a gust of wind.
“Where is the child?”
Even by firelight the birthmark covering the baby’s left cheek and eye was dark and vivid.
“You see,” the king said heavily. “You know what they’ll say. To have a third daughter and no son is bad enough; but to have a daughter who’s witchmarked—they’ll talk of a curse. And some will do more than talk.”
“Might it not fade?” the queen asked. The old woman stared into the shadows.
“No, it will darken as she grows. She’ll have her health, though, and strength; her shoulders will be broader than her fa-ther’s. She’ll be short and broad and strong and dark.”
“Then they’ll think her a changeling, or think–”
“She’s yours,” the queen said sharply.
“I don’t doubt you, love. They may.”
The old woman turned, looked the king in the eyes. “What would you have me do?”
“Take her away and steal some pretty child to lay in your cradle?”
“No. No, I mean change her. Make her what she must be.”
“I can’t change what she is. I can change what she seems, but the price will be high.”
“I will pay whatever you ask.”
“I will take nothing from you. But to be one thing and seem another, that always costs dearly. Your daughter will pay the worst of the price, but you’ll pay too, both of you.”
The queen raised her head.
“Every king pays that price, and every queen, and every royal child.”
“She need not be a royal child. You’ve two daughters al-ready. Tell the court that the child died. Let me take her, let me raise her to be what she is.”
“And the tongues would wag at that, too. The captain of the guard already murmurs about a sick king and a sonless throne—and he has three sons, damn him. There mustn’t be anything else to strengthen his claim that I’m cursed.”
“Well,” the old woman said, “you chose. I’ll do what you ask now. Later the choice will be hers to make.”
By the time I was old enough to know anything of it my fa-ther’s throne was safe enough, though he was not always well enough to sit on it. The harvests were good, which made folk less disposed to think of curses. The guard captain had been publicly disgraced as a bribe-taker. My father had lords who were loyal to him, either for love of him or for fear of each other. And he had his celebrated daughters.
People praised my older sisters for their skill with lan-guages, their music, their courtesy. People called me, beautiful as the morning of the world, called me the blessed child, the luck-bringer; and they brought me their griefs as though I truly could bestow good fortune or blessing. Under the cover of my sis-ters’ music, ladies sat down beside me and murmured of what they had lost, or what they had always longed for and never found; when I walked in the garden alone, maids and gardeners bowed low to me and then lifted their heads and poured out their sorrows and fears. Their loss was past my mending, sometimes past my under-standing. I was only a child. It was my helplessness as much as their grief that started me weeping. Behind my eyes the tears were wet, but as they rolled down my cheeks they hardened and fell into my lap as pearls. Those at least I could give to comfort my people.
Only my parents looked warily at the pearls I shed. I learned to avoid my father in the sick spells which came more and more often as I grew older. He was ever gentle to me in health, but in fever he shrank from me in fear.
My sisters envied my fine bones, my smooth fair skin that never perspired, the pearls that fell from my eyes. Once the eld-est scolded me until she wept. I touched her face and felt her tears, still liquid, on my hand; I put my hand to my mouth, tasted salt and envied her.
Salt was dear even for a king’s household; most went to pre-serve our meat for winter, leaving little for the table. But my sisters could taste salt as often as they cried.
My mother found me sitting alone under the rose arbor with a lap full of pearls.
“What ails you, love?’ she asked. She did not touch me. “Your father’s ill, but he’ll not die of it; and the doctors might find something yet to bring back his full strength..”
“I wasn’t crying for him,” I said, ashamed that it was so. “For myself.”
She tried to look past her fear for him and see me. “Your sister said you’d quarreled.”
“It isn’t fair,” I answered. My voice was husky, not the high clear tone in which she had carefully trained me to speak.
“When was life ever? But how do you think your sister has wronged you, love?”
“It’s not her. I don’t know who wronged me. I don’t know why I have to be like a statue instead of a girl. The young men talk and laugh with my sisters, and they stare at me. You hug my sisters and you stare at me. All people want from me is my beauty, which I can’t give them, and luck, which I don’t even have, and my tears, and there’s no salt in my tears, they’re not real…”
“Daughter, you’re luckier than you know.”
“I’m sick of being beautiful. I’d rather look like the gar-dener’s daughter and have people treat me as though I was human.”
“Have I taught you so little? Do you think royalty is ever free to do what it would rather? We do what we must.” Indeed she had taught me how to flatter a stupid ambassador from an important country and how to be cool toward a friend who might otherwise be accused of being a favorite–though I had few real friends in any case.
“What we must? And is a statue, a lovely doll, all that a queen must be?”
“Is that what you think I am?”
“No,” I admitted. “What you act like, maybe, but not what you are. You lie, you all lie, and you all know you’re being lied to, and I guess you like it that way. But you always lie for a rea-son, and you’re real–you cry, you sweat. You choose to tell lies, but you’re not one.”
She jerked her head back as though I had hit her; then she turned and walked away in silence.
I jumped when the voice spoke behind me.
“You can choose, too,” it said. I turned and saw a bent old woman with a straight clear gaze.
“You were listening?”
“So I was. I knew it would come to this; I knew, whatever your parents thought.”
“What do you mean?’ I asked her. And she told me the story my mother never told.
I believed the story; believed, too, that I could choose. Looking into her eyes I saw my reflection—not the familiar face I loved and hated, but a broad rawboned face whose left side was overspread with a cloudlike mark the color of dried blood.
“She would weep salt,” I said.
“You will,” the woman answered.
How was I to choose? It was easy enough to resent what I had when I thought I could not change it. Now that I could… I paced in the rose garden, thinking, while the sun slid down the sky. At sunset the chamberlain called me to my father’s side.
“No, lady, he’s no worse. But no better, either. He says he’d best put all in order.”
My father sat propped against the head of his bed, with my mother and his doctor at his right hand and two of his most trusted lords at his left. My sisters stood straight and silent at the foot of the bed; their faces were very still, but there were salt tracks on their cheeks.
“My daughters. My dear daughters.” He swallowed, pushed himself straighter in the bed. “My heirs.”
I had thought the kingdom would go to my eldest sister, or more likely to the man she wed; I thought perhaps it was the lat-ter likelihood that kept her from deigning to wed any. But my daughters, my heirs, he had said. I was torn between the desire to be a queen, and the shame of thinking such a thing while my father was ill, and the fear that I would be made a queen and never be free to go away with the old woman and wear my true face.
“The kingdom.” He licked his lips. “I wanted to hold it safe for you. I did my best…with these friends..” He gestured toward the lords, but his eyes were on us. “But how long can I hold it, like this? You…you’re all healthy and fine and fair and clever. You’ll find men to help you hold your own, once it is your own. Tomorrow I’ll proclaim you my heirs. To take possession in a year’s time. But tonight…tonight I make the divisions. Tonight you must understand what each of you will get. There must be no bitterness over this tomorrow in the hall. You must stand to-gether to hold the land I give you. You understand?”
We understood. The kingdom’s threefold division was ancient, obvious and unequal. There was the City with its guild-halls and sculpture-gardens, its library and its great houses; its mistress would be a lady of note. There was the lowland with its fertile grainfields and orchards; its mistress would be a woman of wealth. And there was the hill-country with its wild forests and its herdsmen; its mistress would not be landless, but there wouldn’t be much more to say for her. For me, as I was youngest.
“I am content,” I said.
“Wait,” my father answered. “You don’t know yet what you’re to have. I don’t know yet. But I must choose tonight.” He looked at each of us in turn. I thought he might question us to see how well we understood the laws, or how well we understood which courtiers and nobles could be trusted, or how wisely we might marry. Instead he asked us, “Do you love me?”
“Yes,” we all said together.
“How much do you love me?” he asked. “Speak in turn, so I can hear you.”
I hardly heard what my sisters said. My heart thumped dully. I must not wound him, nor lie to him, nor destroy my chance—only I did not know which chance to take. When he turned to me I an-swered “I love you like salt.” Like salt, which I craved, which was alien to me. Like salt, which I might yet choose at the cost of everything else.
He understood. His face paled; his hands clenched. “Is that all you have to say?’
I began to understand. He had meant to divide the kingdom between us, no doubt, for the reasons he had given. But he had done it tonight because my mother had gone to him, because he wanted me to see how much I would lose if I chose what he had not chosen for me.
No tears fell from my eyes, but my skin itched terribly; I couldn’t help scratching. Great patches of rose-and-cream skin fell to the ground. It hurt, but I didn’t bleed; I had another skin underneath, thicker and coarser, slick with sweat. I could feel my bones shifting, shortening, thickening. My sisters stared at me. My mother screamed. I turned my face away from them and from the queen I might have been.
“Then let salt be your portion,” said my father’s ragged voice behind me. He began to speak with his lords about dividing the kingdom in two parts instead of three, about coming up with a story to cover my disappearance. My mother called one of her maids. I followed the maid and let her take my gown from me and give me a coarse gown and cloak that would have chafed my old soft skin. When my father’s steward brought me a pack full of salt I took it up on my shoulder. When he took me to the castle gate and told me to go, saying that my mother said I might find a haven on the north road, I went, not looking back.
I walked a long way that night, alone and nearly unafraid, under the starlight in the dark of the moon. A King’s daughter must fear kidnap, and a lovely girl must fear lawless men, but I was neither. The strength of my legs and the easy swing of my arms pleased me. My mother had struggled to teach me to dance and to walk with small delicate steps as a lady must. Now I strode manlike through the City and into the narrow belt of orchards on the edge of the hill-country. My body was tired, but not unpleas-antly so; my heart was a dull ache; my stomach was empty.
At sunup a woman came out to milk her cows and I asked food in exchange for a handful of salt. She looked doubtfully at my face, and gladly at the contents of my pack; she gave me a filling breakfast and sent me on my way with a loaf of bread and a pocket-ful of apples.
“And give my greetings to the saltweller,” she said as I de-parted. “I hadn’t heard she’d taken an apprentice.”
“Nor has she, for all I know. Where does she live?’
The woman gave me directions, blessed me, smiled at me as I walked away. I did not know whether I was more glad or sorry that there was no longing in her eyes as she watched me leaving.
The road narrowed to a footpath as it climbed into the hill-country. The bones of the hills grew starker. I recognized the great rowan tree that the farm wife had described, and the little path worn through the weeds on my right hand. In the clearing I found a small cottage, an apple orchard, a brown goat, a dozen great white geese who ran at me with necks outstretched, and a bent old woman who called them off and watched me with clear eyes.
“You chose, goddaughter, ” she said.
She looked at me more closely.
“Not yet. But you’ve lost what you had, for all that. Well, well. There’s time yet.” She looked into the shadows of the ever-greens. “Three years you’ll have. Three years to be both. While the moon shines you’ll wear your pretty skin again, and the rest of the time you’ll have your strong body. But you can’t keep both gifts forever. Three years, and then you’ll have to choose, and there’ll be no going back.”
The years passed quickly over me. I was glad of the strength of my arms as I carried jars from the brine spring to the boiling pans, as I tipped the mother liquor from one pan to another, packed the dried salt into boxes and carried them down to the vil-lages. I learned to hold my head high when folk looked on me with pity or contempt, to laugh gently and reassure those who made the sign against the evil eye, to smile and sit eye to eye with the children who ran from me at first. In time their fear wore off: I was no longer the witchmarked stranger but the saltweller’s ap-prentice, a strong, ugly, good-natured girl with a ready answer for anything and a strong back for any burden. Sometimes they told me their griefs, as the courtiers had done when I was a child. My hearing seemed to comfort them. And sometimes I could lend a hand with the harvest or keep an eye on the babes.
Such were my days. Every afternoon before dusk I returned to the old woman’s house. At the first touch of moonlight I felt my skin softening, my arms and legs extending, my waist and shoulders narrowing, and looking in the well (the fresh spring we drank from, not the brine spring), I saw the king’s daughter’s pale lovely face. Sometimes I wept for the beauty I had lost, and some-times for fear of losing the strength I had won. Sometimes I laughed to think of the two gifts I held, one of them always se-cret.
News came slowly up into the hill-country, but it came. First there was the rumor that the king’s youngest daughter, the blessed child, in grief at her father’s illness and in fear of unrest among the nobles, had taken a vow to live in solitude and pray for the health of King and kingdom. “And may none of the lord-folk work against her prayers!” the merchant who brought the word added. So I served my family as well by my absence as I might have done by staying. Later word came of the crowning of my sis-ters. There was little word of how they ruled, but the taxes rose slowly, and the land had peace.
One day in the full of the moon, late in my third year at the brine spring, we had our first guest: the son of the king whose lands lay beyond my eldest sister’s eastern border. That day I had stayed to tend the brine-pans while my godmother went to meet the traders in the village. She shamed the prince into carrying her heavy trade-goods back. I came around the cottage with a bas-ket full of goose eggs and there he was, smiling like the sun. My godmother hurried into the house, pausing in the doorway to cau-tion the two of us to behave ourselves. He gaped; then he recov-ered himself, murmured some unmeaning gallantry, asked me about the work of the spring, never looking at my face. I thought how differently he would look and speak if he saw me by moonlight. My godmother came back out, gave me a look that was not without pity and called him into the house. I fled to the brine spring. When I came back he was gone. That night I sat beside the well from sunset until dawn and returned with my hands full of pearls.
I did not answer when my godmother asked if I wished to wear my beauty by sunlight again. I tried not to listen when she re-minded me that my three years were nearly through. I worked my-self to exhaustion during the days, and I sat by the well while the moonlight lasted. The moon waned, vanished, waxed again. When it was full again, and I had only two weeks left for choos-ing, I stood staring at my face in the well and at the pearls in the grass around my feet, and I heard a branch crack in the oak above my head. I stared up at the king’s son. He dropped to stand by me. I could see his face clearly in the moonlight, hand-some and gentle, longing; and I knew what he wanted from me, and I could give it. And how could I not want to give it? I held my hands out to him, and he took them, and then he stooped to kiss me. The moon rang like a bell.
He drew his head back and said “In tales it’s the maiden’s kiss that turns the monster to a handsome man; but you broke free of the spell yourself, and all I have to do is kiss you in cele-bration.”
“You know, then? You know I was the woman you saw before—the one with the mark.”
“No,” he answered, smiling. “You only looked like that woman while the spell was on you. This is who you are.”
“No. That was who I am. This is the spell.”
He frowned. “That’s what the beldame said, but not what your parents told me when I brought them the beldame’s message and the pearl.’
“They lied, then. They thought they had to, I suppose. But…How are they now? I haven’t gone beyond the village these three years.”
“Your mother’s well. Your father ails, but he lives. They have joy of their daughters, I think…I mean, of your sisters. They…they said that they were dismayed by your enchantment and they drove you away, and later they were terribly sorry, but they didn’t know where to find you. They hoped that you would come to them again before your wedding.”
“Our wedding,” he said, smiling. “If you’ll have me.” Plainly he hadn’t much doubt. Why should he? He was handsome, kind (for he had carried my godmother’s load), rich and royal. And marrying him would allow me to be a queen without threatening my sisters’ inheritance.
“And you’d have an enchanted queen?”
“I would have you,’ he said, and my blood ran hot in me. “And—whatever your life has been here, you were raised a lady, it will come back to you.”
An owl called in the wood behind me. I turned and saw, not the owl, but the pattern of my life as it would be there; the graceful compliments, the polite evasions, my saltless tears. And he—would he be satisfied once he really knew me? And who would know me as the farmers knew me? Who would tease me, or hug me, or ask me to bring in another load of firewood? And would he be able to bear it if I was not satisfied with him?
I turned back. “If you would have me,” I said, “you’ll have to have me as I truly am. As I look by day, not as I look now.”
“But even the beldame said…”
“Yes, I could change back—or I could have, once. I can’t now. I’ve chosen.”
I saw the hurt in his eyes, and the pearl tears rolled down my cheeks; and once again I felt my soft skin peeling away, my bones thickening, and I knew that he saw my true face in the moon-light. He recoiled; he couldn’t help it.
I held a handful of pearls out to him. “Here,” I said. “Take these for yourself. And a basket of salt for my father’s table. Tell them where to find me, if ever they want to. Give them my love. And you—you, go find someone you can love. It won’t be hard. My blessing goes with you.”
“How can it?’ he asked.
“Because you showed me what I chose.” I said. “You set me free.”
He blinked at me, bowed low and turned away. I walked back to my house, to my work.
Years later in the marketplace I heard a minstrel sing of the King’s fair and virtuous daughter who wept pearls, who was the joy of her kingdom until her father banished her for failing to flat-ter him and a jealous enemy cast a spell of ugliness on her, which endured until another King’s son found her in her exile and saw her true and lovely face by moonlight.
The minstrel put his lute aside.
“That’s never the ending!” called a farmer in the crowd.
“Well, I had the tale from a strange fellow who broke it off there. But who can doubt the ending? He broke the spell on her, and they wed, and they live in bliss until the sun shrivels.”
I laughed until the salt tears streaked my face.
Joanna Hoyt lives on a Catholic Worker farm in upstate NY with her mother and brother and various guests, goats and chickens. She also has stories published by Mindflights and Daily Science Fiction.