The Maiden-Tree by Catherynne M. Valente

It is remarkable how like a syringe a spindle can be.

That explains the attraction, of course. A certain kind of sixteen-year-old girl just cannot say no to this sort of thing, and I was just that measure of girl, the one who looks down on the star-caught point of a midnight needle, sticking awkwardly up into the air like some ridiculous miniature of the Alexandrian Lighthouse and breathe: yes. The one who impales herself eagerly on that beacon, places the spindle against her sternum when a perfumed forefinger would be more than enough to do the job, and waits, panting, sweating through her corset-boning, for a terrible rose to blossom in her brain.

Well, we were all silly children once.

They could not get it out. I lie here with the thing still jutting out of my chest like an adrenaline shot, still wispy with flax fine as ash. Eventually the skin closed around it, flakes of dried blood blew gently away, and it and I were one, as if we had grown in the same queen’s womb, coughed into the world at the same moment, genius and child, and I had spent those sixteen years before we were properly introduced chasing it like a dog her own bedraggled tail. My little lar domestici, my household god, standing over me for all these years, growing out of me, the skin-soil of my prostration, as swollen with my blood as everything else within these moss-clotted walls.

And these are the thoughts of a sleeping woman as she breathes in and out in a haze no less impenetrable than if it had been opiate-bred; these are the thoughts of a corpse kept roseate by the rough symbiosis of spindle and maiden, a possibility never whispered of in all the biology texts she ever knew, or hinted at by the alchemists who whittled sixteen years away burning spinning wheels to lead and ash.

I have been arranged here as lovingly as the best morticians could manage, my hair treated with gold dust so that it would lose none of its luster, even as it tangled and grew wild across the linen, and the parquet floor, up to the window-frames and dove-bare eaves. My lips were painted with the self-same dyes that blush the seraphs’ cheeks in chapel frescoes, and injected with linseed oil so that my kiss would remain both scarlet and soft. My skin was varnished to the perfection of milk-pink virginity, violet petals placed beneath my tongue to keep the breath, no matter how thin it might become, fresh. From scalp to arch, I have been tenderly stroked with peacock-feather brushes dipped in formaldehyde (specially treated so as not to offend the nose of any future visitor, of course). The place where my breast joins the spindle has been daubed with witch-hazel and clover-tincture, cleaned as best as could be managed’”all this was done with such love, devotion, even, before the briar sprouted beneath the first tower, and the roses put everyone else to sleep with me.

But they were not prepared, and this has become a tomb with but one living Juliet clutching her nosegay of peonies and chrysanthemums against her clavicle, her back aching on a cold stone slab.

You cannot imagine what has happened here.

My father stood behind me at each of the great bonfires’”one at midsummer, one at midwinter, every year since my first. He kept me well away while those wide-spoked wheels were piled up like hecatombs in the courtyard, carted in on peasants’ backs and in wheelbarrows, bound up in tablecloths and burlap sacks, dragged behind families in knotted nets. I was transfixed when they blazed and crackled, bright as Halloween, up to the sky in skeins of smoke and fire, sending off clouds of sparks like flax-seeds. The wheels spun the heavens like a length of long, black cloth.

Now you will be safe, he whispered, and stroked my golden hair. Now nothing can hurt you, and you will be my little girl forever and ever, amen.

But Father, I could not help but think, how will they spin without their wheels? There are less of them every year, and everyone is getting holes in their stockings. The sheep will snarl in their pastures, weighted to the mud by unshorn fleece! Folk will clothe themselves in brambles, and the markets will be so silent, so silent!

Hush, now, he sighed. Don’t think on that. You are safe, that is enough. I have done what was required of me.

Will they move to the cities? Will they work in the factories under great windows like checkerboards of glass? Will they stitch a thousand breeches an hour, a hundred bonnets a minute?

No, he said, (and oh, his gaze was dead and cold!) A textile factory is but a spindle with teeth of steel. They, too, will burn before you are a woman grown. Everything, everything, will be ashes but you.

Oh, I whispered, I see.

I see.

And I inclined my head a little, into his great hand.

I remember the blueberries best, I think. How they grew wild beneath my window, and dappled the air with purple.

The roses took them, too.

I lie here, I lie here, and my hands are so carefully tented in prayer, frozen in prayer, but I hear, oh, how I hear, as only the dead can hear. Out of the loamy soil came a little sprig among the fat, dark berries, innocent as oatmeal, and I heard it come wheedling through the earth, sidling up to the stone. They cleared a space for it, watered it with delight, of course, once they ascertained its botanical nature’”what could give the sleeping dear sweeter dreams than a rose blooming just here, below her bower?

Nothing, of course.

And it might have been alright, it might really have been nothing but a rose, white or orange or violet, buds sweetly closed up like pursed lips. But it sent out no flowers at all for months, while the gardeners frowned like midwives and buried fish heads in the flowerbed. It grew, upwards and onwards, and it might have been harmless if it had not found its tendrils brushing through my window one night when October was beating the glass in, if it had not crept slowly across the polished floor and grazed’”so faintly!’”my angelically positioned foot.

It lay against me for a moment, as though it meant only to decorate.

At first I thought it was my mother’s voice’”and I cannot recall when, in all these years, I recalled that there had been a witch, and a curse, and that curses generally come from witches, who possess more or less female voices of their own. It is so easy for a certain kind of girl to forget the origins of things.

But at first I did not even understand that I was sleeping. I thought it was the natural result of a spindle-syringe, that the lovely warm feeling of seeping was what my father had meant to hid from me, the niggardly old fool. I lay back on the bed only because my head felt so hot, so hot, full of sound and the weeping of golden meats, and I could not stand, I could not stand any longer. And when I whispered to no one at all that there were all these red, red roses blooming inside me, I thought I was very clever with my turns of phrase, and would have to remember to write that down when I was quite myself again.

I did not feel as though I was falling, but rather that I had failed to fall. I lay there, and lay there, (and now it has become so much my habit to lie that I consider myself a student of the art, an initiate to its mysteries’”no mystic with limbs like branches could outlast me) and there was a moment, just before dawn, when I tried to rouse myself to go down and sit at a table which surely held fried eggs and fine brown sausages speckled with bits of apple-peel, and made the inevitable discovery.

Of course I panicked, and thrashed in my scented bed, and shrieked myself into Bedlam’”but none of this sounded outside the echoes of my own skull, and soon after my father’”his face so haggard!’”resigned and so thin, so thin, set his men to preserving my flesh. I was still screaming when they stopped up my mouth with wax, but they heard nothing, and patted my cheek with a refined sort of pity, as though they knew all along I was a bad girl, and would come to some end or another.

At first I thought it was my mother’s voice. But something in the way it vibrated within me’”well, a mother whispers in one’s ear, does she not?

You are so beautiful, little darling, like light bottled and sold.

The spindle said it, I know that now, the spindle stuck in me like a husband, and it sang me through sleep with all these black psalms.

Beautiful, yes, but you cannot really think anyone is coming. Do you know what happens to a body in a hundred years? Some bourgeois second-son will hack through the briar’”such labor is needed in a world without spindles, in the world your father made with his holocaust of spinning wheels, and there will be no shortage of starving, threadbare boys willing to brave the thorns for a chance at the goods in the castle’”but not you, little lar familiari; he will be looking for the coats off of your aunties’ frozen backs, for the shoes in a dozen closets, for the tableware and the tablecloths’”oh, especially the tablecloths! He will be looking for curtains and carpets and scraps of damask, your mother’s trousseau, your sister’s gowns, as much as he can carry’”and he will come upon this little room. He will be almost too revolted to enter; the smell of twelve hundred months of menses will wash the hall in red, (it will hardly be a year before you’ll flood the wax stopper there), and then the smell of bed-sweat and bed-sores gone to fester, the smell of formaldehyde having long since conquered its pretty mask of flowers. He will hardly be able to open the door for the press of your grotesquely spiraling toenails. You’ll be a stinking, freakish, blood-stuck frog pickled in a jar, and he won’t see you but for the gold in your hair, and your long, lovely bridal dress which will not have been white for decades.

He’ll strip you down as though he meant to be your lover after all. He’ll take the dress, and the veils, and the sheets off the bed, he’ll shave your hair to stubble and clip your nails for swords, and leave you naked and alone to rot in this tower until the next desperate prince comes through the roses and cuts you up for meat.

Please, please be quiet. I never did anything to you. I only wanted the needle, and the rose.

No one is coming for you. I am all you have, and I love you better and more loyally than all the princes in Araby. Who else would have stayed with you all this while?

Please. I want to sleep.

Aristotle said it was impossible. (Do not be surprised’”girls with no natural defense against spindles are always classically educated.) He stroked a beard like lambswool after a March rain and assured a gaggle of rosy-testicled boys that one cannot bury a bed and expect a bed-tree to grow from that large and awkward seed.


You can plant a maiden, oh yes, and watch the maiden-tree flower. And the spindle planted me into a bed, and the bed grew with me. And look, oh, look at us now.

I have wept in my sleep and watered it, but I might have saved the moisture. The rose-briar pushed its way into my heel, sinuously, insistently, as if trying to slide in unnoticed. There was a small, innocent popping noise when it pricked the skin, and left its red mark, predictably like a stigmata. It began a slow wind through the complicated bones of my ankle, and I could feel the leaves sliding against the meat of my calf.

Almost immediately, it detonated a blossom, a monstrous, obscene crimson unfolding on the wall like a spider, and the silence of its breathing clambered into my ear. The petals were crushed by a ceiling of skin, but no matter’”in a month or two those too will break through, and all my pores will be the roots of roses.

And with this I will tangle you up in me, came the spindle-voice, soft and shattered as a witch who has sold her soul for the magnitude of her spell. The roses came open inside my legs’”oh!’”the thorns broke through the nails of my toes, and there was red, nothing but red, everywhere.

If you had lived, you would still have had the spindle stuck in you’”you cannot really escape it, the bruised fingers and the sheep-sweat smell of wool in your lap. Isn’t it better this way? A rose is a rose is a rose is a maiden, maidens are supposed to be roses, and I will make of you a bed for flowers like erupting maidenheads’”

Out of my torso the briars came, up around the shaft of the spindle, around my arms like shackles, around my throat, through my hair. I was soil, I was earth, I could not move and my flesh exploded into roses with a perfume like shadows. I screamed; I was silent.

I’ve saved you, you’ll see. I am your spindle; I am your prince; this is my kiss. With this lacerate of flowers, I have taken you out of the world, the blighted, wasted world your beauty has stripped of cloth, the poor, rubbish-strewn landscape that was the country of your birth’”it is all gone now, the vineyards and the rolling hills and the corn’”

No, no, someone will come and gather me up like a sack of cotton and I will eat blueberries again and drink new milk and you will be nothing but a faint scar between my breasts and he will remark when we are old that it looks something like a star. I will never hear your voice in my bones again, you cannot keep seeding my skin forever’”

I can. Whoever said this was a hundred-year sentence and not a whit more? Calendars lie, I lie. I lie inside you no less than a liver or a spleen, I breathe your breath, I rise and fall with your sleeping breast, my needle pulses in you, warm alongside your heart, and this is all there is.

They wound out of the room, splintering the door, down the stair, and it was not some sepulchral perfume that felled the court’”no, no, the roses did it, the roses snapped round their calves and whickered a path to their throats. The stems shot past their lips and sent out their petals there like thick cakes, blocking their breath as mine was never blocked, tearing their lungs as mine were never torn. Trails of thin blood trickled out of five hundred mouths, five hundred gasps were stoppered up like water in a jar. The maiden-tree was in its summer, and from its briar-branches hung five hundred bright and bobbing fruits, orange-ladies and lemon-lords, cherry-sculleries and plum-cooks, and an apple-king, and a queen among figs.

I am not for them. I am for you alone.

And they were not prepared, they were not treated with gold and formaldehyde, their bodies grayed on the vine as bodies will do, and I can smell my mother’s skin sodden through with mold, and I can smell my sisters rotting.

There is nothing but briars, briars all around, and throttling roses scouring the stone.

Nonsense, darling. I am here.

Please. I am so tired.

Years later, even the bed sprouted, little tendrils of green wandering out of the rain-saturated wood, seeking out more wetness, and finding all that there is to find here’”my skin, my blood, my tears. The room which was ample to hold a maiden while she slept off an overdose has become a clot of green, snarled full of woody branches and tender, new shoots. I am enough to water them all, and the spindle is enough to water me. That is the biology of maidenhood.

And so it was that even the bridal bower became rooted in me, and the pillows were blossoms, and the coverlet was bark, and I was the heartwood, still and hard within. Aristotle, Aristotle, with your beard of briars, there are such secret things at work when a bed becomes a tree. I do not fault you for ignorance.

I have had a long time to think.

I am sorry about the needle.

Catherynne M. Valente is a poet, author and scholar whose work can be found online and in print in such journals as Pedestal Magazine, Fantastic Metropolis, Jabberwocky, Fantasy Magazine and is featured in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror #18. Her latest novel, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, was recently published by Prime Books. Her four-book series of interconnected fairy tales in the tradition of Arabian Nights, The Daughters' Tales, will be released by Bantam/Dell in fall 2007. Her website has more information about her current and forthcoming projects.

Image: Sleeping Beauty by Thomas Ralph Spence.