By S.B. Houghton

Ellie ran her hand along the stonework. There was not yet enough light to make out the rocks around the mouth of the well, but she could feel the springy greenness of the moss at its lip, soft against her stiff fingers. As time went along and her other senses had begun to abandon her, she had rediscovered her sense of touch again, and relied on its honesty.

She straightened up, shivering a little in the early cold, and began to pull hand over hand along the stout rope attached to the bucket. Despite her age—or perhaps because of it—she could out-work and out-scrub most of the girls in the village, a fact she harbored with some pride. Years of hard work had given her strength, patience and a wiry tenacity the flighty young girls could scarcely be expected to match.

Every morning Ellie drew water for her cleaning and cooking, and carried it across the yard to the groundskeeper's stone cottage, where she lived alone. Just beyond it, in rotting splendor, rose the great manor house. Each year it grew more derelict; a few months ago, she had been wakened in the middle of the night as a section of the roof caved in.

Years ago, the lady of the manor had taken pity on Ellie and shown her a rare kindness. "You have worked hard for many years, with nary a complaint," she had said, "and now I cannot leave you here alone in good conscience. At least take the cottage for your own; it will afford you shelter." The lady had died shortly thereafter. Her children swiftly squandered their inheritance, then left abruptly, without so much as paying the servants their back wages. Ellie stayed on, the sole remaining tenant on the grounds.

She moved slowly across the yard, trying not to spill too much water. Chickens and the occasional peahen followed in her wake, shamelessly begging for corn. Ellie shivered again, uncertain whether it was the cold or something else she would not name; she was careful to keep her back to the ruin. Perhaps it was a trick of the greyish half-light, or the placement of the trees, but just before dawn the manor seemed to gather the whole of the night into itself. All through her morning chores—drawing water, feeding the chickens, gathering eggs, building up the oven—she could feel the almost palpable presence of the house vibrating in the air around her, observing her.

Just inside the threshold, she set the water down and shut the door firmly, leaning against it. How sad you would be to see the manor now, pappa, she thought, more like a damp hole than a house. Lately, Ellie had also sensed her father's presence nearby; she found herself having half-formed mental conversations with him. Probably the first signs of senility, she thought, chuckling at herself. Poor pappa; your Ellie's certainly gone far in life, hasn't she?

By mid-morning, with the chickens fed, the firewood gathered and the other early chores completed, Ellie finally had some time to tend to her embroidery. She had the frame set up by the east window, where she had a fine view of the dawn, the awakening village below, and the castle looming up in its distant grey splendor. Presently she was working on table linens for market day; she had designed a brand-new pattern, based partly on the view from her cottage. She washed her hands and sat, smiling, deftly threading the needle. After years of practice, her stitching was tiny and even, and in no time she had set up a quiet, regular rhythm. Ellie began to sing, verses of an old song from her childhood:

O farmer at the furrow,
O sailor come from sea,
Have ye heard aught of my dear love
Who e'er was true to me?

She stitched steadily, surely, in a kind of lucid dream brought on by the regular flash of the needle in the sunlight, the neatness of the stitches, constantly the same, yet continually changing. The sunlight flowed in through the open window, flickering and rippling through the treetops, casting dappled shadows on Ellie's face as she sang.

Fair maid, cease all your sighing
And come away with me,
Though I've heard naught of thy dear love
In his stead thy love I'll be.

Her voice cracked on the higher notes. Well, she was no young girl any longer. The pattern was working well. Noble owls took form at the edge of her needle, swift bounding deer, tall straight hazel trees, flowering sweet peas, the flaring trumpets of daylilies, all the patterns of life. There was a comfort in patterns—the needle went forward, then back to complete the stitch; you found your true love, who in turn found you; day followed night, all in its proper order. What was the next verse? Tut, now her memory was going too. Ellie sighed.

In the center of the cloth, a castle began to take form. Ellie meant to recreate the view from her window, but as she progressed, she grew more and more dissatisfied with her work. The castle should look properly shimmering and somewhat hazy; not this jumbled pile of rocks she had created. Finally, in dismay, she realized the pattern was past saving; she would have to cut out the threads and start over. Such a waste. Ellie rubbed her face with both hands, sighed and stood up. Not now. Best to start some bread now, and try to come back to the work later.

Breadmaking felt good, authoritative; it gave one time to think. Ellie loved making bread, and was exceptionally good at it. She worked up a soft dough, sprinkled the flour out, dropped the dough in the center with a slight poof of flour and began to knead, pushing in hard with the heel of her hand, doubling back, over and over. In a way, it had the same consistent rhythm as her stitching.

She had been making bread the last time she saw Andrew, in the kitchen at the manor house. Andrew was a stablehand from the village—young, redheaded, infuriatingly obstinate—but there was something in his hazel eyes that had drawn her in, and somehow they had come to be friends. The very first day they'd met, he'd cockily declared his intent to leave the village and had invited her to come along. Then, after only two months of work, he made good on his word—gathering his wages and his measly belongings and going off to make his fortune, just like the youngest brother in the old stories. Whatever had become of him? Perhaps he had succeeded. He was always so stubborn; couldn't be told no. Certainly there was no reason for him to come back to the village now; his parents were long dead. She considered him as she had last seen him, standing in the kitchen dooryard with his poke slung over his shoulder, red hair glowing in the winter sunlight, asking once again if she had made up her mind to go with him.

"My mind is already made," she'd told him. "We've discussed this before. I need to stay here."

"No, you don't. They'll find another scullery girl."

"That's not why I'm staying, and you know it."

"Oh, Ella, please. Give this up," he had protested. "It's been five years! You're throwing your life away, working here. I know how much you wish he'll come, but wishing won't make it..."

The heat of her old anger still brought the color to her face, years after the fact. "How dare you?" she had hissed at him. "I know he's coming! I know it! How could a stupid boy like you possibly understand? He loves me, and I love him, and he will come for me!" She remembered how her face had hardened against him; Andrew had an uncanny way of knowing just what to say to bring out her most carefully hidden fears. "You look as though you think I've gone mad. Go on, then. Go on your fool's errand, I'll not come with you. I have work to do."

She had closed the kitchen door in his face. When she was quite sure he had gone away, she had curled up in a corner and sobbed for a long time, in anger and frustration—knowing she had pushed away her last chance to escape this place, wondering whether he was right and she had indeed gone mad. The lost look in Andrew's eyes echoed and re-echoed in her head. For several days, even though she knew it was dangerous, she slept with her treasure in her hands, clutching it tightly as though it might bring her warmth.

* * *

Ellie sat picking fretfully at the embroidery. The bread was nearly done baking, the night was coming on swiftly, she was tired, and her memories had upset her more than she wished to admit. She began to hate the sight of the spoiled linen cloth.

Abruptly she stood and paced, trying to fix her thoughts. And what should I have done, then, pappa? Gone with Andrew, the young hothead, to seek my ridiculous fortune in the wide world? What good would that have done? Would I not always then have wondered whether I had missed, perhaps by mere minutes, the sight of my love riding up to the gate? A nice way to poison a friendship. Andrew's eyes crept into her thoughts again, and this time she did not flinch. Ellie knew it was not a broken friendship that had kept her awake nights.

She closed her eyes and sighed. The loaves were probably done. She opened the oven door and began to slide them out to cool by the hearth. Then, faintly, she caught the sound of young voices coming up the pathway. Her face broke into a wide wrinkly smile.

Sure enough, Samuel the miller's son was waiting, hat in hand, at her doorstep. Behind him was a small crowd of children.

"Bless me, Samuel, you look like the Pied Piper," Ellie laughed.

"Old mum," said Samuel hopefully, "have you any stories today?"

Suddenly Ellie felt her tiredness dry up. "Certainly, Samuel. I always have stories." She smiled, opened the door wide, beckoned them in. And in came Samuel, and the fishmonger's two daughters, and the blacksmith's boy and the cooper's girl, and all the huntsman's children, right down to the youngest who could barely talk. They were done with their chores and lessons, and they had come, as their parents had come before them, to hear her stories.

"Will you tell us the Pied Piper tonight?" one of the huntsman's children asked.

"No, not this time," said Ellie, gently thumping a loaf. "I think tonight we may have a new one... What are you playing with, my sweet?"

The fishmonger's youngest smiled apologetically and took her hands off Ellie's trunk. Ellie smiled a pardon at her, then took a moment to consider. She had always been very strict with the children about not touching her battered trunk—but why shouldn't they be curious?

"Well, would you like to see what's inside?" she asked, and got an energetic yes from all the children. "Very well, then, but you must promise to be careful. These things are very old, and they can be broken very easily."

She lifted the heavy lid. Out came a long string of milky beads, a fan cut so finely that it looked like a bit of lace, a square of white gossamer with an elegant "E" embroidered in the corner, and an ancient hazelwood jewelry box, its surface covered with carved flowers.

"Where did you get them?" one of the girls whispered.

"From a young lady, many years ago."

"What's in the flower box?"

"Oh, I lost the key to it. I'm sure there's nothing in it any more." She held her face carefully as she said this; she had never been very good at lying, especially to children.

The girls took turns fingering the beads, glowing opalescent in the dim candlelight. "What kind of a lady was she?"

"Why, she—well, would you like to hear a story about her?"

There was a murmur of general assent, and after Ellie had trimmed the wicks, she sat before the fire and began, "Once upon a time there was a beautiful young girl whose mother and father had died, and whose stepmother was so cruel that she set the girl to work as a servant. The girl cleaned everything, even the fireplace ashes, and her stepsisters mocked her and treated her with disdain..."

She found herself enjoying this story more than the others, weaving it with care and precision, trying to give it the same patina of timelessness of the other old tales. The children hung on her words, scowling at the stepmother and her cruel children, amazed by the transformations as the servant girl changed three times into a mysterious princess, tense with fear as the clock struck midnight. Best of all, she could feel her words finally taking on the shape she had so wanted to achieve in her embroidery. As she brought the story to its proper close, she could see reflected in each of their eyes the distant dream of the shadowy castle, never quite focused but always present. They all sat in silence for a while.

"Did it really happen, old mum?" someone asked. "Did she really marry the Prince?"

Ellie's smile was invisible in the dim light. "Nobody knows," said she. "Ask the King. Now you'd best run along, my dears. It's getting dark."

They needed no other prodding. Ellie's house was cheerful enough by day, but by night it was too near the rotting manor house for comfort. So they thanked her and wished her good night.

When they had gone, Ellie put the kettle on for tea and began to sweep up. Only then did she notice that someone had left something behind. She stooped slowly and picked it up. It was a crudely shaped heart, made from two horseshoe nails bent together. The smith's son had probably left it for her. She turned the sweet, clumsy thing in her hand, then clenched it tight, and felt the smile drain away from her. Suddenly she was crying bitterly.

It took her more than a few moments to regain her composure. Silly old fool, she thought, crying over something a child made. She wiped her eyes with a corner of her apron, sighed, sniffed, and began to put away the contents of the trunk. After a moment's debate, she tucked the metal heart into one corner.

How things do change, pappa, she thought. Even me. I've long forgiven you, and I was never a forgiving person. I couldn't let things go. Now I think you would hardly know me. Nor would he, if he actually found me. Here I am, an ancient old maid living on the edge of the property, still waiting for something to happen. But tell me, what else could I do? Smiling a little at her own folly, she took up the jewelry box, turning it in her fingers, hesitating for a moment. Then, after making quite sure she was alone, she took a key from the chain around her neck and unlocked the box.

As she opened the lid, the old wind-up motor spun, faltered out a few sweet tones, and stopped. She wound it up again, slowly, and a little dancing tune began to play over and over again. Incredibly, her treasure was still there, captured within the box, as lovely and new as when she had first seen it. She touched a shining edge, gingerly, but it didn't dissolve away under her fingers. It was real. It had all happened. She grasped the treasure in both hands, and the cottage blazed up and swirled away into a spacious ballroom, all string quartets and watered silk skirts. She was dancing again with the tall stranger who had smiled at her.

The first time she arrived, she had been struck dumb with amazement at the absolute size and grandeur of the ballroom, all the beautiful people, and her heart shrank within her. Even in all her finery, she still felt like a kitchen drudge. For a moment she thought of turning and running all the way home. She could never belong there, she should never have come, she was hopelessly out of place, what on earth had she been thinking? And then there he was, calm and gallant, taking her hand as though it were bone china instead of flesh and blood, leading her out to dance. After that she noticed nothing, not the vaulted splendor of her surroundings, not the pointed stares, not the whispers behind the fans; nothing but him. How they had danced and talked and laughed together! She could still remember small details about him: all the speckles of color in his eyes, his habit of anticipating a joke with the tiniest of secret smiles, the way his left eyebrow turned up at the edge...

The clock struck with a shriek. With a start, Ellie realized it was no clock, but the kettle singing, and with that she came back to the world again, and her house. Tea was ready. She shook a little, laughing quietly at herself. Ah, you're quite right, pappa; I may have gone a little mad. But what a lovely madness. She smiled. Your Ellie, always waiting for her dance partner. Then she locked the glass slipper back in the box and went to pour the tea.

The End

Copyright © 2002 by S.B. Houghton

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