by Alexandra Seidel
It is perhaps a general fault in fathers that they do not know the honest things to say in praise of their daughters. He could have said, her name, my king! It’s pretty as an ice flower or a robin’s song, makes your lips tremble when you say it, tremble like tiny silver bells! But he, being a father, did not say any of that. Instead, he lied.
To tell a king that your child can spin mere straw into the finest gold is not just any lie. It is a lie that can burn, can harm beyond repair, can kill even; it is surely one that will mark. Surprising enough that such a lie could be believed, but monarchs do as monarchs do because they think the world must surely revolve around them and their wishes and whims. They believe whatever they want, and in their minds it follows that the truth must obey.
“Bring me the girl then, miller, and bring her fast,” said the king in his chamber of scarlet. “Bring her so I can test her skill and see for myself the things she can do for my country.”
And the rest is so well known and yet so little understood. You must see it acted out before your eyes like a play on a stage:
The curtain lifts. There is a girl, not yet old enough to fully understand her place in the world, and thus she is standing on a balcony, speaking out loud her thoughts pertaining the need and meaning of names. There might be someone listening, but we cannot see clearly, for only the girl is bathed in light, all else remains hidden.
Then from within, the villain nears, wearing a white mask of flour. He lures the girl with soft words, nice words, words that are not even half true if he hides them behind windmills. You, in the audience, will see the girl shooed into a carriage and the flour man staying behind, closing his fingers around the bagful of coins the driver gave him; so many things are sold before their time to hands that lack in certain qualities, gentleness among them. The curtain closes silently.
It must be said, the girl was beatific. Had she been just a little older, she would have begun to see the curse in that, but not yet. Her curtsey lacked in grace, but if she were able to spin straw into gold, why, that had to be excused.
“So you,” said the king in his robes of scarlet, “are the prize of my kingdom, a mere girl who can give me more riches than any man can desire?” And had the girl not been a girl but a woman, she would have known that a man can always want more, thirst for more, feel that he has not yet had enough. But all she knew was how to blush.
“My dear, no need for humility,” said the king and took her by the arm the way kings do when they are about to win a kingdom from you. He led her to a room wider and higher than a mill and filled to the ceiling with straw. The smell made the girl think of lost summers, of braided hair and harvests gone by. Her chest heaved and hurt with the smell.
“An easy task for you, I am sure.”
The king released her arm and pointed to one corner where a reel and a spinning wheel were almost buried beneath the straw.
He turned his scarlet gaze onto the girl, ruthless as is the wont of kings’ gazes. “Have it spun into gold by sunrise, or die.”
The door was banged shut and locked and the girl left with tears that would not come because the pain was still too much. Betrayal will do that to anyone.
Now, in the tales, she is saved. A strange man does her work for her in exchange for her firstborn, but for the price of his name, the man can never make good on this claim; eventually, he tears himself asunder, and all is well. There is no scarlet in that story. It was all a lie.
In reality, morning came and with it, the king, ready to embrace his newly spun treasure. But there was no treasure there, just a girl, lost in a sea of straw.
“Why, and I had so hoped that it was true,” he said, and as she looked into his scarlet eyes, finally the tears came. “Now I will have to think of a way to punish your dishonesty.”
He took her cheek into his hand, a gesture that might have been mistaken for compassion.
“I could make you dance for me in shoes of hot glowing iron; I could make you race down a hill in a barrel studded with nails; I could have your feet chopped off or your eyes eaten by crows; I could drown you or burn you or break you on the wheel; what will it be, miller’s daughter?” And while he spoke, her tears carved lines of salt into his scarlet flesh, really all that she could do.
Slowly, deliberately, he lifted his hand and licked the salt and the tears clean off. All men have secret names, the girl understood that then, kneeling there in the straw, squinting up at him through red and puffy eyes. Hidden names, names hidden behind masks.
There would have been no story if he had just killed her, of course, just another miller’s daughter buried at a king’s whim. But instead of killing her, he took her by the arm and led her from the room of straw, led her to the northernmost part of his palace where the sun wouldn’t reach. He led her down, down, down the many steps to the dungeons, a cold place where only shadows lived. He pushed her into a cell and locked the door and kept the key on a ribbon of scarlet, hidden in the folds of his robe, hidden there along with his name.
What the chroniclers had to say about the king was this: that he always kept his household in order; that he married a wife of considerable standing, raised his children with a strict but loving hand; that the kingdom–while it did not thrive–did well during his reign; that his army was loyal and devoted to him and him alone; that he was strong; that he was righteous; that he was honest.
There is no mention of the scarlet ribbon nor the secret name nor the miller’s daughter bought for a bag of coins and locked away in the dark.
Naturally, he did return to the dungeons to see her. He used his scarlet-ribboned key and made the turning of that lock her dusk and her dawn. All the time she had was his to give and his to take, was something less relentless, less merciful than any law he’d ever passed. She knew this well.
He kept her fed, even gave her nice clothes. She learned soon that he was scarlet all over, even underneath his robes and his crown.
It was the quiet girl, the miller’s daughter, who made up the story, for what else should she have told her children down there in the dark? She only ever whispered it into their ears, the story of a poor girl who rose to be queen and found the name of the shriveled little scarlet man, found it and said it out loud and kept her children, the little princes and princesses, safe with the power that name had over him.
Of course they forgave her that lie.
Alexandra Seidel probably caught the myth and fairy tale bug while she was out in the woods one midsummer day. Meanwhile, the disease has turned her into a Rhysling-nominated poet, a writer and editor. Her first collection of stories and poems, All Our Dark Lovers, is forthcoming from Morrigan Books on Valentine’s Day 2013. Other work may be found in Mythic Delirium, Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Twitter (@Alexa_Seidel) or read her blog: www.tigerinthematchstickbox.blogspot.com.