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.”
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.
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!).