CORE AND SEED AND STEM
On the afternoon that the king’s herald arrived the goosegirls were not minding their geese. They were at the stream, barefoot and barelegged, the hems of their shifts knotted and clutched in their fists as they waded through the water. They made their way to the boulders at the center of the stream. Their hair, long and dark, hung free.
The geese were in the pen, on the other side of the field, some fifty paces back. The girls could not see them but they could hear them. They barely noticed. The honking was to them what the lowing of the cows was to the milkmaids, or the striking of steel to the blacksmith’s apprentice: ever-present and imperceptible. They reached for the rocks with chapped hands and heaved themselves up. The younger goosegirl dropped the end of her shift in the ascent, soaking it in the stream, and the elder pulled her the rest of the way, then watched as the younger sat and wrung out her hem, water darkening the stone. When she had finished, they turned together to face the horizon.
Up there, they saw everything: the hills and the heather in bloom; the goose pen beyond; the white, waddling smudges within. The thatched roofs of the village, smoke from the fires; the cathedral, half-built, spire like a spindle; the gray expanse of sky stretched above it all. And behind them, the wood, its darkness an invitation to disappear. Sitting there, in the stream at its brink, set their teeth on edge, called the hairs on their napes to attention. But they reveled in it, the risk—that was why they had come.
Of course, they could never have explained as much. If their mothers were to find them, no words would prevent a whipping. Yet there was something in the air, a scent stronger than smoke, something apart from the oncoming chill of autumn, that made their skin itch, that whispered change was near. Not marriage or motherhood, which were as inevitable as the turning of the seasons, and as out of their hands: bargains struck in the hall over mugs of mead, with an eye to meat in the winter and goosedown as an ample dower. Something more, which they could not name.
It was the arrival of the king’s herald—or so both girls believed, their ears cocked not for the geese but the trumpet. Only the day before the steward had asked them for their plumpest goose, and the girls had said goodbye to Abel, who squawked and squawked until the steward abandoned any attempt to lead the bird down the path and simply twisted his neck in front of the entire flock.
But there was something more than the herald’s arrival, which the whole village expected. The younger goosegirl sensed it, in the same way she knew when leaves would fall and frost would follow, the same way she understood her grandmother would die one day but not soon. The way both of them knew the wood was forbidden, though nobody in the village had ever told them so. There was no need to explain something felt in the blood and the bone.
That night, the herald made his announcement to the village, a hush falling over the hall as he cleared his throat once, then twice, the words stuck. The goosegirls stood side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowd. The news was as expected: the princess, long betrothed, was at last to be wed. She would depart in a week’s time for her new home and husband. But what followed was unexpected: the king, deeply pleased by the cathedral’s progress, desired a girl from this very village to accompany his daughter the princess on her long journey. “The girl of your choice,” the herald said. There were cheers, then, and toasts. The lord had rolled in casks of ale in anticipation of the celebration; but neither goosegirl joined the hubbub. They stood, the elder suddenly sucking in her breath, the younger all at once aware of what was about to happen, as the villagers turned, and looked, and considered, and decided, on the younger goosegirl.
All those eyes.
She stood there, rendered stone, until the elder squeezed her wrist, hard, thumb on the pulse point, over the vein, and propelled her forward into the crowd, where she was lifted onto a long wooden table. Her neighbors roared and raised their glasses. From that height, the younger goosegirl could see the whole of the village: men taking long, hard gulps of ale and clapping each other on the back, applauding the quarrymen and the mortarmakers and the stonemasons; women, whispering, as they circled the hall with fresh pitchers. Children, in the corners, already pulling hair, playing at princess and goosegirl. Her grandmother, fallen asleep by the fire. But she lost sight of the elder goosegirl; the elder goosegirl had gone.
The celebration went on until dawn. Nobody noticed the younger slip away—it was rare for her to be alone. She passed the sleeping geese, slender necks and heads tucked into their feathers, and the cottage of the elder goosegirl, where the windows were dark. She passed her own cottage, further along, and then even the midden, which marked the village’s end. She walked toward the wood. In the dark her clumsiness dislodged tiny avalanches of small stones, but up on the hill the sky was flush with morning light. The earth, when she sat, was still cold. She plucked a sprig of heather, crumbled its buds to dust between her fingertips. Her head was light from lack of sleep. She did not start when the man sat down beside her. She knew at once he had come from the wood; she held her head in her hands to still the ringing in her ears while he twirled his own sprig of heather between his palms.
“They’re meek things, princesses,” he said. “More docile than geese.”
She lifted her face from her hands. “It’s not that,” she said.
He stretched out on the grass beside her. “Then what is it?” When he moved, the buckles on his boots clinked. The sound echoed in her head. They were big boots, with heavy heels and buckles the size of her fists. She looked away, down at the village below. She knew this place: these hills, this scrub, the scrabbling path she had climbed a thousand times with a flock of flapping geese in tow, the cottages clustered around dirt lanes, dotted already with small figures fetching well water. Even the new cathedral, rising as surely and steadily as the sun.
“I just don’t want to go,” she said.
“If I were afraid, wouldn’t I be afraid of you?” she asked.
So it was not quite that.
She might have thought it all a dream except for the elder goosegirl, who in the morning was sullen, hair hanging lank in her face as she prodded the geese up the hill at a punishing pace. The younger followed behind mutely. An apology would not suffice—she had nothing to apologize for, nothing but her hesitation, which she hesitated even to name. Instead, over their midday meal, the younger goosegirl wondered what lay in store for her at the week’s end. The elder shoved her hair behind her ears and scowled.
“You idiot,” she said. “Think! You will ride out of here on a fine horse, cross the entire country. See places you never even knew existed. And the court!” She bit into an apple with a thunderous crunch. “Think of the feasts. The fabric. The dancing. The chambers they’ll give you. Fires lit for you in the morning, bathwater drawn by somebody else. Think of the men! No one will have known you as a child. Everyone will have something to say that you have never heard before.”
The younger goosegirl ripped her hunk of bread into smaller pieces, and said, “I can’t imagine they’ll house a goosegirl like a princess.”
The elder shrugged. “There are lots of things you can’t imagine,” she said.
The next night the younger goosegirl could not remember the walk up the hill. Together, they sat on the largest boulder in the center of the stream. He helped her climb it. He had brought apples and they chewed on them in silence. He ate every part, core and seeds and stem.
This time she looked as hard as she could at the horizon. Her breath unfurled in front of her like smoke and he brought up a hand to snatch it away. But even with her vision cleared she saw only the line where the mountains met the sky; she could not imagine what lay beyond. This was her view, encompassing as much as she knew of the world, and it was, she hoped, enough.
Besides. The scent on the wind was strange, and the autumn chill unusual, the way it snuck inside her collar and skittered down her spine. She tossed her apple core into the stream, watched the current carry it away. She didn’t want to go. She didn’t need to. Her questions lived here.
In the morning, the herald was already on his horse, the little piebald pony he had brought with him stamping in the square, when the younger goosegirl unpinned the heavy riding cloak and fastened it around the other goosegirl’s neck. The elder did not hesitate: she stepped forward, lifted her foot to the stirrup, and swung herself into the saddle as though the journey had been intended for her all along. She kicked the pony into motion, and trotted past, eyes already fixed on the road ahead. The crowd dispersed as soon it became clear she would not wave goodbye. The goosegirl stood shivering alone in the square in the early morning mist.
The weeks that followed were long. The goosegirl hauled sacks of grain over her slender shoulders. The geese squabbled and bit. She ate alone in the field, found herself gazing not at the village but at the road that stretched away from it, wondering when she might see the piebald pony trotting back. Frost descended and snuffed out the strangeness in the air: the itch in her skin subsided, her ears no longer rang, the scent on the wind was replaced with the metallic tang of iron and snow. But instead of relief she felt as bare as the trees.
The elder goosegirl should have returned within a month. Strangers passing through the village shared story after story of the princess and her wedding: she had ridden into her new kingdom on a white horse, the sun glinting off its bridle and her crown; the women of the court had been stricken with envy at her beauty; the prince instantly smitten; the sight of her on her wedding day, entering the church in a gold-edged veil, had brought the people to tears.
But the visitors had no news of the goosegirl who had accompanied the princess and ridden in beside her on the piebald pony. The village ticked off the time on their fingers: a two-week journey to the border, five days of festivities, the journey back longer in full winter. But as the weeks went on without word they concluded that the elder goosegirl had decided to stay. She had found employment, they supposed, or the princess had so enjoyed her company that she had kept her on. Or perhaps, the women whispered, over the heads of children, she had found a man.
They asked the younger goosegirl what she thought, what she knew, but she said nothing, supposed nothing. She had no footing, no foundation; somehow she had lost sight of the elder goosegirl. She sat in the empty hall contemplating the embers in the fire, how they crumbled to ash, before pouring water over what was left, taking satisfaction in the extinguishing hiss, in the darkness that surrounded her like a second skin as she slipped out the double doors and walked up the path on the hill through knee-high snow. Halfway there the sting of cold faded to numbness. When she reached the stream she was unsurprised to see it frozen solid, the boulders at the center like thrones.
“What did you expect?” he asked, as they stepped out on the ice.
She looked down at her ungloved hands. Her fingers tingled.
“I would have come back,” the goosegirl said.
He shrugged. “But you were too afraid to go.”
She sucked in her breath in one long hiss. “I was not afraid,” she insisted.
“Yes, you were,” he said. His smile showed too many teeth. “You were too afraid to go. You wanted to stay. You wanted to stay the same. You wanted everything to stay just the same.”
“I was not afraid!” She stamped her foot on the ice, and it cracked.
He laughed. “Of course you were. You still are. Aren’t you?” He cocked his head curiously, like a bird, and the feeling in her fingers sharpened until it hurt. It spurred her forward: she took one step, then another, the ice creaking beneath her boots. He startled, then smiled, watching her approach. The dimple in his left cheek flickered in and out, like a candle. Then she reached him, and raised her hand, and it extinguished altogether. He took in her frozen fingers hovering by his cheek.
“I won’t vanish,” he said, his breath warm.
“No,” she agreed. She flexed her fingers, searching for sensation. A prickling crept up her hand and arm. “But I might.” She laid her palm against his cheek.
The prickling flared, flooded her skin like fire and burned until she screamed. When it stopped, her ears were ringing. He had hold of her now; his hand gripped her wrist, thumb over the vein, her pulse hammering, a chisel carving out her heartbeat. She could not breathe and then she realized she was holding her breath. The cloud from her lips hung in the air.
“Where were you hoping you would go?” he asked. He took a step backwards, one foot on the bank where the wood began, extending his arm, and hers, across the ice. “Where might fear bring you?”
The goosegirl looked: his face pale in the moonlight, the wood behind him blanketed in snow. She could not see beyond the first few trees. It was all so serene; her breath still lingered like blue smoke between them. In the dark centers of his eyes, though, she saw the sun, rising over her shoulder, a red glow.
“You don’t frighten me, you know,” she said. Her voice was thin as the ice.
She expected him to laugh. Instead, he bowed.
In the spring the scent on the wind returned; it tangled itself in the goosegirl’s hair and clung to linens and aprons and handkerchiefs, everything hung out to dry. When her grandmother was buried it mingled with the cold wet smell of upturned earth so strongly that she had to reach for the priest’s arm to steady herself, and through the rest of his sermon he held onto her shoulder as though worried she might hurl herself into the grave. After that, she could not keep her mind on any one thing. Even the trumpet sounded hazy, far away. But when the herald arrived his words were clear enough. It was the same herald from the year before, though this time he did not stop to make toasts. He had come with news, at last, of the elder goosegirl.
She had been imprisoned for impersonating the princess. On the journey she had coerced the girl from her horse, stripped her naked and taken her finery, forced her to adopt the guise of a goosegirl. The princess had been too terrified to speak, so the prince had married the goosegirl and they had lived as husband and wife while the real princess toiled in silence. Thank goodness for the horse, who kicked and bit, threw its riders and destroyed its stall, refused to let the false princess near; one morning, a groom spotted the real princess calming it through tears, and told the master of the horse, who told the prince, who summoned the true princess, who wept again as she told him the tale. The elder goosegirl was put in the stocks. She would hang.
In the days that followed the younger goosegirl could not be still. There was a roaring in her head she could not silence. The geese honked and hissed and snapped at each other and she did not try to calm them. She lugged a sack of grain to their pen, slashed its side and let it pour into the mud, climbed up on the fence to get away from their frenzy, and looked up at the wood. Her hands shook. When that afternoon a storm rolled in and the sky grew dark she walked up the path to the stream and sat on a boulder in the rain until her dress stuck to her skin and her hair turned to long dark ropes, until her lips were blue, until he grabbed her by the wrist and said, “Look.” He brought up a hand to clear the clouds. She looked down at the village, at the leaky roofs and the cathedral shining wet; he grabbed her chin and yanked her face toward the road. There was the piebald pony, a rider on its back. The goosegirl ran.
In the square the villagers stood with their hands shielding their faces from the rain and watched as the pony plodded forward. Even from the back of the crowd the younger goosegirl could see the swell of the elder’s skirt, the way she rode with one hand on the reins and the other on her belly. Of course. You could not hang a woman with child. Especially a prince’s child. The pony came to a halt and when nobody came forward to help her dismount the elder goosegirl slipped down into the mud on her own. She did not meet anyone’s eye. The first hiss sounded like a goose, and the younger goosegirl saw how the elder’s head turned instinctively toward the pen. But it wasn’t a goose: it was a boy, and the next hiss was louder, and then others joined in, until the air was full with contempt.
The elder goosegirl did not speak over the mug of cider that the younger warmed for her. She did not flinch when the women surrounded her in the hall and called her a whore; she stood silent as her family bolted their door against her. She did not say thank you to the younger goosegirl when offered the bed that had been her grandmother’s. And she would not help; she was far too unwieldy, but also, she had been a princess, and princesses did not haul sacks of grain or scatter handfuls of it to the flock. She would not call after a wayward goose or cluck her tongue to make it mind. But she came to the field, and sat among the geese, and let them nibble at the palms of her hands, and she whispered and sang to the baby she would never meet.
When the season turned full summer, though sweat trickled down the goosegirls’ necks and the elder’s stomach had swelled to bursting, still they trekked up to the field, and sat at the stream with their feet in the cool water. The elder goosegirl let the younger help her up onto the rocks, and when the wind threatened to tangle the younger’s hair she caught the flying mass of it in her hands and combed through it with her fingers. She tucked and braided it into a style she said the women were fond of at court, and then she looked out at the view they had shared for so long. The younger goosegirl looked, too: heather, hills, thatched roofs, smoke, cathedral nearly finished, the sky.
“Why didn’t you go?” the elder goosegirl asked.
The younger goosegirl looked down, at her feet, how the water had wrinkled them.
“I was afraid,” she said, at last.
“Of never coming back?”
“Of wanting to.”
The baby was born blue, but brought back by the midwife sucking its nostrils with a straw. She let the elder goosegirl inspect the tiny toes, the whorled ears, the cleft between the little legs, before clamping manacles over the elder goosegirl’s swollen ankles. Through the walls, the younger could hear the steady thrum of a hammer, and the clanging of a heavy bell: the gallows rising in time with the cathedral’s finishing touch.
She waited until dusk descended and the village was dark. When the wind blew in, sharp and strange, pulling her hair from its braid, still she did not pause. She clucked her tongue and snapped her fingers for the geese, head bent, hair hanging loose, as the birds swarmed and squawked at the wind. In the darkness their wings flapped white like ghosts. She prodded them up the hill, following her breath unfurling before her in the summer heat. Ahead, where all else was dark and dense, he stood bright as velvet. She moved more slowly, bent under the new weight of the baby, but at last she made her way to him.
“Take her,” she said, and offered him the bundle in her arms.
He stayed still. Beside him, the boulders in the stream shone in the moonlight, empty thrones. He kicked at the base of one with his boot.
“Take her,” she insisted. “Before anyone notices she’s gone.”
His eyes glinted like the buckles on his boots. His teeth shone, too.
“What would you have me do with her?” he asked.
“Take her to the wood,” she said. “Teach her to eat all of the apple.” She laughed, and placed the baby in his arms. She did not flinch when their fingers brushed, or when he grabbed hold of her wrist. “Teach her to be brave,” she said, shaking him loose, and she could hear it: the bell that tolled for the baby’s baptism, the clanging that called for the hanging to commence, the last of her laugh on the wind.