Editor's note: Still catching up with winning entries to EC's contests. This story, by Lissa Sloan, is sad, touching, and beautiful--and features a lot of plants, so naturally, I love it. Read on for an enchanting take on "Rapunzel."
You were always a restless child. When you were a baby you were never content to lie curled in my arms. You writhed and struggled until I carried you to the window and held you upright so you could look out over my shoulder. I would hold you there, for hours at a time, my back to the window. I tried not to think of the garden you looked out on. I tried not to picture the neat rows of vegetables, the trellised beans and peas, the apples and pears, trained against the wall. That place had brought me nothing but trouble.
Trouble I had begged and pleaded for. I could not resist my neighbor's rampion. It seemed like such a little thing at the time. The first time your father went over the wall to get me some, it even seemed a bit of a joke. He came back laughing, flushed with his success. And I ate every last bit of it, too. Leaves, roots, even the flowers.
|Fruit and Flowers, by Edmund Blair Leighton|
But one bunch was not enough. I had to have more the next week, and soon it was every day. And it was wonderful. Raw with vinegar and pepper, cooked with butter and garlic, chopped into a thick vegetable stew. Sometimes I could hardly be bothered to brush the dirt off. I never even noticed the slump to his shoulders when he handed it over, his weak attempt at a smile.
It was months before he told me. I was sitting by the fire, licking my fingers. He sat on the floor and put his arms around my knees and his head in my lap. "She caught me," he whispered.
I sat up straight. "No more rampion?"
"You can have as much as you like," he said dully. I relaxed back into the chair, sighing contentedly. "But I
have to tell you," he put his hand on my rounded belly, confessing to you too. "I have to tell you now."
"What?" I said, not all that concerned anymore. Nothing could be worse than no more rampion.
He told me. And now I knew the price for all the rampion I could eat, I sickened at the very thought of it. I haven't touched so much as a leaf since that day. But it was too late of course. Our neighbor would come for you one day, and we must give you up.
"We mustn't get attached," your father told me, swiping at his eyes with the back of his hand after putting you in your cradle. "It will only make things worse." I knew he was right. But it made no difference. I tried to hold you while I could, but you always wanted to be free. When I fed you, you would arch your back and turn away. Sometimes I wondered if it was because of the tears. I cried so much in those days I feared the salt tears would seep into my milk and make you bitter.
But all those tears did you no harm. You were not bitter. You were only restless. Even after she took you. I watched you, you see, taking your first steps in that garden, climbing trees and looking out over the wall. It gave me a little satisfaction. You would not be content with her either.
"Come away from the window," your father would say. "She isn't ours any more." He couldn't stand to watch you. I couldn't stand not to.
I tried to meet you once, when I thought she was out. I scaled the wall and hid in the branches of the pear tree below, hoping you would come outside. You did, but you were barely through the door before I heard her voice. "Rampion!" she snapped, and her hand grabbed your arm and pulled you back inside. I climbed back over the wall and sat with my back against it, my heart thudding in my ears.
I don't know how she knew I was there, but somehow, she did. She took you away that very night, after sunset. After that she was gone for several hours every day. I tried to follow her, to find out where you were, but she always eluded me. One moment she was there on the path before me, and the next she was gone, almost like magic.
But I knew she was seeing you. Some days she would come home happy, some days annoyed, just as when you were still living there. How I envied her, even her frustration or anger, because it was from you. As I had once watched you in the garden, I now watched her when she came home, and wondered how her time with you had been. Had you pouted when she tried to comb the tangles out of your hair? Had you thrown your arms around her in delight when she gave you the dress she had spent weeks making? I was hungry for any scrap of you I could get.
Then one day she came home, and she sat down in her garden and cried. She cried as if her heart would break. What could make her cry like that, I wondered. Watching her, I felt a knot in my stomach, a catch in my throat. I had cried like that too--once, on the day she took you. The day you were lost to me. Were you lost to her now too?
You might think I hated her, and maybe I did, for a while, back when I could see her touch your hair, feel your smooth cheek on her wrinkled one. But on that day, all I felt was pity. I found myself thinking she could use some chamomile. I thought she might have trouble sleeping that night, and chamomile tea is good for that--I know. I also know that in her garden, with all its fruit trees and well tended herbs and roots, she grows no chamomile.
But I do. I have taken to growing a few things in a little patch outside my window. Nothing like her garden, of course. No carrots or leeks, no turnips or cabbages. No rampion. Just a few things I like to have on hand. Mint for a sour stomach, lavender to freshen the bedclothes, chives to put in soup.
And the chamomile. I had plenty to spare, so that night, I crept over the wall and left some on her threshold. I knew she needed it, because I could hear her pacing behind the door. In the morning it was gone.
I think I must have been right, about her losing you somehow. She does not make her daily trip anymore. I have stopped trying to follow her. What would be the point? But I do leave her more chamomile from time to time. She gives me a nod these days, if we ever see each other, out in our gardens or at the market. Once, I even dared to go to her front door, carrying a pot of tea. I thought she might not let me in. But she did. We sat in silence a while, sipping our tea.
"Do you ever hear from her?" I asked at last. She shook her head. "Do you think she's alright?" She shrugged. Then she stood and turned her back to me. It was time for me to go. I gathered up my tea things and went to the door. She held it open for me, her eyes bright with tears she refused to let fall. "There's no harm in tears, you know." I said.
She turned her head away. "There's no good in them either." I left then, the door standing open between us.
Perhaps she is right, perhaps there is no good in tears. But these days I wonder. I have heard fantastic tales in the village lately. Tales of the king's son, blinded by thorns and separated from his love, wandering for years as a beggar. Tales of how he returned to the palace, his love and their children by his side, his eyesight healed by her tears alone. It is only a story, so it makes no difference to me I suppose.
So, from either side of the garden wall we still wonder, my neighbor and I, what has become of our Rampion. Are you free, as you always wished to be? I hope so. I imagine you are, as I work in my little garden. And if I cry into the occasional midnight cup of chamomile tea, it does me no harm.
Lissa has contributed a story, poems and guest posts to Enchanted Conversation. She loves to plant her garden, but hates to weed it.