The Inheritance

There lived once, on the outskirts of a kingdom that no longer exists, a girl who lost her parents.

Her mother died while giving birth to her, and as for her father, he was taken by cholera when the girl was twelve.

The girl’s mother had been a gifted seamstress. She left for her child a chest full of dresses – dresses made of gold thread and silver thread and many other threads. The girls’ father had been a carpenter. He left for her the house she lived in, as well as a wooden doll with bright blue eyes.

The father’s sister moved into the little house following the cholera outbreak, and though she claimed she was doing it out of the goodness of her heart, she soon turned the girl into a servant. The girl scrubbed the floors, cooked the meals, repaired clothing, fetched the water, and tended to the garden. The aunt lived off her dead husband’s inheritance, and lived rather well, but rarely could spare food or clothes for the insufferable orphan who didn’t have the good grace to be carried away by cholera or some other illness.

When the girl turned fifteen, the aunt found a new use for her. “Times are lean,” she announced, “and my estate won’t feed us both. You never bothered to learn a trade or get an education [the girl tried to say that she had not been allowed to learn, but the aunt waved her off]. You will earn a living in the only way that’s open to you.”

Every night from then on, a man would enter the drafty attic where the girl lived, only to slip out before sunrise. The men hoped to remain unseen, but the sky saw them all, of this the girl was certain. Most never came back (perhaps they knew the sky was watching), but a few faces became familiar. One man wore black and carried a very old musical instrument, gusli, wherever he went. Sometimes, he amused the girl with songs and encouraged her to sing herself.

One night, when they were lying together under the steep roof, the man who normally wore all black unless he was naked next to her, asked the girl a strange question:

“Did your father leave you anything before he died? A doll, perhaps? With blue eyes?”

Surprised, the girl nodded her head.

The man rose on the bed and covered his nakedness with a sheet.

“I see your father in my sleep. He says, ‘You called yourself my friend. How is it that you treat my daughter this way?’ I wanted to stop coming here when it began, but my desire for you is too strong. I have begged your father for forgiveness, it’s not my fault you were born beautiful. Still, he haunts me. He stinks and his flesh melts off his bone, but whenever I ask him to leave, I notice that the stink is coming from me, and it is my flesh melting. Last night, I stood on my knees and begged for mercy, and he told me that you were to take your doll and a single dress from among your mother’s gifts, and that I was to help you run away. Head into the woods, follow the moon. Don’t trip over the roots and certainly don’t look behind you. If you feel lost, ask the wind to guide you and it will. At dawn, you will come upon a clearing, and then a lake filled with swans. Dip your doll into the lake. He only had one other thing to say and it was: ‘Revenge is not ours.’ What that means, decide for yourself.”

The next night, the man slipped a vial of mysterious white liquid into the aunt’s cup before making his way upstairs. Later, making sure that the aunt was good and asleep, the man let the girl out. She had chosen a silver dress, the colour of moonlight, and wore a hooded coat to keep warm. She clutched the doll to her breast and ran.

The man called out to her, but she did not turn around. He shrugged. What would he have been able to give her even if she wanted him to come with her? He was just a poor musician, with a family of his own.

The girl did exactly as she was told, guided by the wind moaning in the trees. At dawn, she dipped her doll in the cold water of the lake. Under the water, she could feel the doll change – become soft and pliant, growing hair on her head.

“Who are you?” The girl shrieked when she saw that she was holding another girl, a beautiful girl who looked older, but was no more than a doll in size.

“I am your sister,” the doll replied slyly. “And I make true wishes come true.”

“Prove it,” said the girl. “Make the swans who dirty the water go away.”

The doll snapped her fingers and the swans’ fair white breasts ran red, and, one by one, they floated out of sight.

“I didn’t ask for you to kill them!” The girl protested.

“But you’ve got murder on your mind,” the doll shrugged her tiny shoulders. “And I make true wishes come true, remember? Now put me in your coat, I am getting cold.”

***

primavera by vrubel

For a year, the girl lived in the woods. Her doll-sister built her a house out a tree-stump, made a garden out of a clump of weeds, and together they raised vegetables and hares, chickens and fat geese. A fire crackled in the hearth at night, and an owl hooted on the roof. The girl could not abandon her doll-sister, her only family in the world, but neither could she leave the woods, knowing what the doll could do.

On a spring day, the girl put on her silver dress and tended to the garden outside. As a child, she had dreamed of going to balls, but she made do. The sun stood in for a crystal chandelier over her head, and the bees and butterflies were her dancing partners. She made her own music by singing just as the musician had taught her. This was when the duke’s nephew saw her while on a walk with his dog. Although he was much older than the girl, passion coursed through him as if he were sixteen again.

At the palace, the girl was able to pass the doll off as a sister who had, tragically, stopped growing. The duchess whispered to her husband that their beloved nephew was marrying into a family of “invalids.”

“What does it matter?” Asked the duke. “We have our own misfortunes. Notice her dowry. She is of foreign nobility. In hiding.”

“In hiding from what?” The prudent wife hissed, but her husband had no answer. Outside, an owl hooted.

The girl had indeed come to the palace laden with gifts – carved and lacquered bowls and rolls upon rolls of brocade. The doll had spent all night conjuring up the dowry. She had always wanted to live in a palace, she claimed – and said that her lack of imagination prevented her from conjuring one up. “I am a carpenter’s daughter, just like you,” the doll sighed.

***

fabric by vrubel

The night before her wedding, the girl saw her mother in a dream. Her mother had no face, because the girl had never seen it.

“Look at my hands,” the faceless mother said and raised them up. The hands were red and raw, covered with needle-pricks.

The girl woke up with a start. It was still dark outside. She jerked her coat on and escaped down the vine that grew helpfully outside her window. She didn’t see a small shadow following her.

The small house far beyond the palace walls was still there. The aunt had gained weight in the previous year – she did not starve without her slave-girl after all. She was asleep in the wicker chair the girl’s father had made.

Wordlessly, the girl strode across the room and opened her mother’s chest. The other dresses were still there – one gold as the sun, one red as a woman’s lips, one white and dazzling as pearled snow, and so on. The aunt stirred in her chair, groaned painfully, and stirred no more. The girl turned her head and saw the doll standing on the threshold, eyes blazing. A red stain was spreading across the front of the aunt’s nightgown.

“You little…” The girl grabbed a poker out of the fireplace and advanced. “This isn’t what our father wished for, and you know it.”

“It’s what you wished for. Or did you really come back here for these rags? Maybe you think they’re magic too?” The doll laughed, but the girl cut its laughter short, piercing the pretty head straight through one blue eye. She expected blood, but all she got was a splinter in her cheek. Lifeless pieces of wood held together by a few crude bolts clattered to the floor.

***

The duke’s nephew skipped breakfast and, against all protocol, accosted his wife-to-be in her chamber.

“A woman was murdered last night. The guards saw you returning right as dawn broke, with blood on your face.”

“It was just a splinter,” said the girl.

“The victim was said to have kept her niece in the attic. The niece was said to have visitors.” A muscle twitched on his handsome face.

“Visitors is certainly a nice word for it,” said the girl. She had found her language altogether different, since the events of the previous night. “How very polite of you, my love, to use it.”

The duke’s nephew and heir (the duke’s son had never advanced beyond the mental age of two) thought back to the time he saw the girl in the garden, shining like a new silver coin, as mysterious as the moon in the sky on a summer afternoon. What a liar she had been – singing happily, as if she had anything happy to sing about.

“I can’t marry a whore and a murderer,” he said. He waited for her to protest.

“Look at my hands,” she said. “How many men have they stroked? How many hearts they have torn apart? You’ll never know, my love.”

***

The girl left the palace quietly, before the celebratory banners were pulled down, before the duchess threw a shoe at her nephew and locked herself in with her son who gurgled and reached out to her happily; the duchess stroked his pretty hair and fine beard, and she cried.

The girl had her mother’s magic dresses in a sack on her slender back. A musician dressed in black followed her and played his gusli, but she shooed him away at the edge of the forest. She stepped into the shade with no fear. She knew that her mother’s white dress would keep her warm when the first snow fell. Her mother’s blue dress would make her as light as air, so that the wind forever moaning among the trees of that kingdom could carry her when her feet got tired. Her mother’s red dress she would save for a very good occasion.

The musician’s silly gusli music had made her start humming, in spite of herself. She sang the first song of her journey then, and it was the sky alone that knew when she would sing her last.

    Copyright: Natalia Antonova (me!).

18 thoughts on “The Inheritance

  1. If Natalia is planning to write children’s stories or folklore-based stories, she might want to consider reading “The Transformations [or “Metamorphoses”] of Lucius,” also known as “The Golden Ass,” a Latin novel written in about 180 A.D. by Lucius Apuleius, which is source for the folkloric tale of Cupid and Psyche (the invisible husband who visits his wife in the night). The novel itself is a sort of picaresque tale about conversion to the religion of Isis after the narrator, Lucius, is transformed into an ass through his improper use of magic. In the final two books (I think), he appeals to the goddess Isis to be transformed back to his original human form. Isis appears, changes Lucius back to his original human form, and Lucius resumes his human life as a worshipper of Isis and also in practicing law in Rome. I have never read “The Golden Ass” in translation, so I don’t know whose translation is best. If Natalia has the time and inclination, she might want to learn Latin and read “The Golden Ass” in the original Latin. Apuleius employs a peculiar kind of Latin, but it’s worth reading.

    Lucius Apuleius was actually an historical figure, one of the Roman provincial elite, who was tried for sorcery in the Roman province of North Africa and apparently acquitted. His defense speech (Apologia) has also survived and is popular with Latinists.

  2. “Still, he haunts me. He stinks and his flesh melts off the bone, but whenever I ask him to leave, I notice that the stink is coming from me, and it is my flesh melting.”

    Your love of Shakespeare’s tragedies has influenced you in surprising ways, Natalia.

  3. Natalia, as a feminist, do you believe the fairy tale medium is inherently sexist? Are you trying to reclaim it?

    Also, and this is a tad unrelated, so forgive me, please, but do you accept the standard definition of a “proper” fairy tale? Personally I don’t think your offering falls under this definition, although I can’t say I enjoyed it less for that.

  4. JS – Thanks for the tip.

    O – Yep! All Slavic illustrations to a very non-Slavic tale. 😉

    DD – You want to turn over a new leaf? Fine. My favourite Shakespeare tragedy is “King Lear,” actually. What’s yours?

    As for your other questions,

    I don’t believe that fairy tales are inherently sexist. Fairy tales represent the fractured world that we live in – a world that is often pretty abusive of women, yes (and men get tortured and abused in fairy tales as well).

    I am not “reclaiming” anything. Although this all depends on how an individual reads me.

    I try not to fret over the “proper” definition of a fairy tale. I am a modern person. I’m not going to write like a 12th century peasant spoke. I’m not going to write like Tolkien either (and he’s had a lot to say about the subject). I see a lot of writers who use fairy tale in one way or another (anywhere from Hollywood to Kate Atkinson) – and then some boring person somewhere will inevitably pop up and say something like, “but that’s improper!” Perhaps. But if you believe that fairy tales are the glue that holds both pop culture and whatever is deemed as high art (which can just as often be both, really) together, then you just don’t worry about these things.

    I am also one of those people that believes that there is nothing new under the sun – but that this shouldn’t stop us from being creative either. 😉

  5. Wonderful! I hope you write many more.

    I thought I caught a few influences–most strongly, Vasilissa the Fair/Baba Yaga, with the doll, and the theme of revenge, and–that’s actually a pretty dark one to begin with, or can be, but this is of course a fairy tale with the teeth back in, for adults…too.

    Have you read “Coraline” by Neil Gaiman, by the way?

    I think a lot of the best fairy tales have some element of horror in them.

  6. I’ve read “Stardust” and “Neverwhere” so far – I’d like to read “Coraline.” 🙂

    I think you’re spot-on about horror. And if there’s no horror – there better be comedy. Disney, in its adaptations, relies on comedy, for example.

    And I know it’s not really fashionable to bring Disney into these discussions – but they do have their own places in the mythology nowadays, methinks.

  7. Coraline is awesome. Have you read the original Grimm’s tales? they weren’t nice.

    Love the story, you seriously have it copyrighted? AWESOME!

  8. Some quick comments:

    The girl/protagonist’s two “families” look like parallel versions of each other, with:

    A dead or distant ‘father’ and dead/beneficent or alive/beneficent ‘mother’ in each family, the queen in the second family being affectionate (and probably beneficent) to her own biological son;

    A second actual or prospective male partner (father-substitute?) in each family, the gusli-player in the first family and the nephew in the second family; and

    An alive/maleficent ‘mother’ in each family, the aunt being the malificent mother-figure in the first family and the queen in the second family being critical of the girl/protagonist and maleficent toward the nephew (she throws a shoe at him!).

    The one variant character that I can see in the second, subsequent parallel ‘family’ is the mentally challenged biological son, unless the maleficent wooden doll is his parallel in the first ‘family,’ since both were ‘created’ by the original biological ‘fathers.’

    With that in mind, some quick questions:

    Do these two parallel ‘families’ represent sequential stages in the family dynamics in which the girl finds herself? I.e., do these two ‘families’ really represent the same family with changing dynamics over time as the girl enters adolescence and later adulthood?

    I do note that, in the first family, the girl rejects the gusli-player, but in the second family, the nephew rejects the girl (but I think she rejects him as well, or at least refuses to submit to him). What does the gusli-player’s musical instrument represent? And why does the nephew in the second family not have some parallel instrument or something like it? Is that implicitly why the girl rejects the nephew? Or is it that, if the nephew did have something paralleling the gusli-player’s instrument, the nephew would not have rejected the girl for having been a so-called “whore and murderer”?

    If there is a sequel to this story, is the girl/protagonist going to return to her second ‘family’ and, with through hitherto undisclosed power of hers (her song?), bring the biological son/doll to mature life? And, if so, will he then murder the maleficent/critical queen/mother? In the latter question, I was thinking of Electra and her brother Orestes in the ancient Greek story of the House of Atreus/Agamemnon. In the ancient Greek story, it is Orestes who returns and Electra who, having previously ‘raised’ him as a child in his father Agamemnon’s absence at Troy, urges him on as an adult to kill their common mother — which last point leads me to wonder: Is the queen/mother the real biological mother of the girl/protagonist, and was the girl/protagonist foisted off on the carpenter/seamstress couple because the queen did not want a rival for her husband’s affection (the girl being a sort of female Oedipus)?

    My final question is: If the girl/protagonist was coerced into prostitution by her aunt, why, after the doll has killed her aunt and the girl has suddenly learned to assert herself without assistance (and to assert her own sexuality, apparently), does the girl talk about her job with her “visitors” as though it was an emotionally/sexually rewarding experience? Has the doll’s murder of the aunt had the impact of changing the girl’s view (or memories) of her own experience as a prostitute? From what I understand, young women who are coerced into prostitution do not remember it as an emotionally or sexually rewarding job. So why does the girl now (apparently) celebrate her prostitution as though she had gained power over her clients (she ‘tore their hearts apart’), since in fact she was coerced into prostitution?

    Sorry for the long post and for what may be stupid questions, but these are the questions that came to mind when I read your revised version.

    This is an interesting story with lots of possible sequels. Maybe even a screeplay. 🙂

  9. Mmmm. Well, like I said before – I don’t sit and ask myself: who is going to symbolize what in this story? It doesn’t really work that way, so I don’t think I can even begin to answer that. I’d like people to draw their own conclusions on that account.

    But to answer your other questions – I think this character will show up again. I like her, even though she was always a much darker character than I wanted to admit (hence the big overhaul). I also don’t think she is celebrating what happened to her, not at all.

    I also kind of saw the duchess as having a very good reason to throw a shoe at her nephew. I don’t know if everyone else should view it as such.

    And I’d love to develop screenplay skillz. Maybe one day. 🙂

  10. Hi Nat! I always like reading your stories, and this one was a treat 🙂 Here’s what I thought worked really well in capturing the “fairy tale-feel” in this story:

    1) the language and imagery you used (e.g. following the moon, asking the wind for guidance, lakes full of swans, etc.)

    2) the repetition of events: I feel like fairy tales tend to repeat events, as if they were told in an oral tradition, to make the story easier to retell. Events might happen in 3’s, exactly the same the 1st and 2nd time, but on the 3rd time, something changes. (e.g. In “the 12 dancing princesses”, the guy follows the princesses 3x, and on the 3rd time he told the king what he saw.) So in your story, I see the “repetition of events” as the doll granting the wishes (1: the swans die, 2: the girl gets a dowry to go to the palace, 3: the aunt dies). You also make the 3rd event different from the 1st two (the girl confronts the doll at last and puts an end to her).

    3) the dark, macabre feel to the story (since fairy tales in their original, non-disney forms were like that). You tied this all together with the wishes and the freaky doll (all of her wishes being twisted into something evil), so that worked really well.

    In conclusion, hurrah! That was all great to me.

    Some suggestions/questions:

    1) The relationships between the royal family weren’t very clear to me until I read it through a second time (e.g. duke, duchess, son, nephew). The son’s character was what confused me (I wasn’t sure that he even existed at first, and so was confused when the aunt was crying over him at the end). Maybe you could add a few more lines about him to clarify confusion.

    2) Did the girl wish to go to the palace, or just wish for her dowry? (Since your “3 repetitive events” are the girl’s 3 wishes, I’d like to know clearly when and what she’s wishing for. Did the girl wish to live in a palace? Wish for a royal guy to fall in love with her? Wish to have a new family? Or just wish for a dowry? etc.) If we know clearly what she’s wishing for “out loud” to the doll, then we can interpret what her true “inner wishes” are based on how the wish pans out. (e.g. she wished for the swans to go away, but secretly she was thinking about killing someone, so the swans died. so if she wishes for a new family out loud, maybe she secretly thinks that there’s no such thing as a kind family, and so ends up with a fiance who calls her a whore. etc.)

    3) I’d like some clarification/more explanations about the girl’s mother. The girl has this dream/revelation about her mom at the end that causes her to ultimately destroy the doll, leave her fiance, and start off for a new life with her mother’s dresses. This raises lots of questions in my mind, namely: 1) what was so special about her mother/her relationship with her mom that made the dresses so meaningful at the end? 2) why wasn’t she able to realize the value of her mother’s dresses until the doll was destroyed? 3) do her parents represent qualities of herself, and how could you emphasize that in the story? (e.g. dad warned her against feelings of revenge, and she overcame that issue at the end. perhaps her mom taught her about being free, learning to be herself, being in touch with the world, etc., and so these dresses will help her discover that…etc.)

    However, I think it’s good that you’ve raised questions like this, b/c the story makes for a good discussion. it all seems very symbolic, and i think any book club would have a fun time talking about all its inner meanings.

    Thanks for letting me read this! 🙂
    <3, J

  11. HEEEEEEY!!!

    Thanks for dropping by! Khaled and I are already planning to take time off in October, and I’m dying to see you.

    I think the thing you said about the mother teaching her to be free – that’s very important, and I think it’s in the text, when she (the mother) raises her hands and they’re all red and raw. Like, there was a sacrifice there that’s really unfathomable to the girl because she didn’t get to know her mother (death in childbirth), but she understands it, and understands her mother’s magic, right before her wedding day.

    I’m not really sure what it all means, ’cause I’ve had this one on my chest for so long that I can’t see the forest for the trees, but I’m really glad to have your comments here.

    I’ll e-mail you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s