The Crone in the Cornfield, By Kristen VanBlargan
Listen, child, and I’ll give you the tale you want. Yes, there will be a fairy godmother. But a love story? My dear, I can’t promise you that.
Once upon a time—that era deep in the caverns of your imagination—if you were to travel past vales and vineyards, through plains and pastures, you would find a kingdom nestled between the roaring currents of rivers and the sighing mists of mountains. In this land, the king and queen were beloved by all, for they ruled their people with just and generous hands.
But you’ve heard these stories before, and you know there must be a catch. No, the queen doesn’t die, but that’s a good guess. She had no child. Although she was still the most beautiful woman in the land, the queen had long since passed the days of her youth. She would smile and laugh among her people, but at night she wept at her barrenness.
One day, her handmaiden saw the vestige of tears on her queen’s cheeks. “My queen, why do you cry?” she said. “You have been blessed with the fortune of a thousand moons and the joy of a thousand suns.”
“O, I would give all of that for a child. My womb is empty, and the kingdom shall have no heir,” the queen said.
The handmaiden’s voice sank to a whisper. “I have heard, Majesty, that there is a woman in the north who can help you. She speaks to spirits, she writes on leaves, she divines desires in dark caves. She has been said to grant wishes such as yours.”
So the queen and the handmaiden departed on a horse-drawn carriage, and after days of traveling, they arrived at the edge of a vast cornfield. As they approached, a path appeared that led to a windowless cottage. The queen left the carriage and walked to the door while the handmaiden stayed behind out of fear. Before the queen’s hand reached the twisted iron knocker, the door swung open, creaking and quaking on its hinges. She crept into the cottage.
Through the labyrinth of cobwebs stood a crone hunched over a vat, her back to the queen. “I have waited long for you,” the crone said as smoke enveloped her gray hair.
“I have come to—”
“I know what you seek,” the crone said, turning around to reveal a face full of entrenched wrinkles. The crone, holding a goblet in her hands, slid towards the queen. “Your wish is not uncommon. I have granted it a thousand times, and I will grant it a thousand more.” She placed the goblet before the queen. “Drink, and you shall bear a child. You shall name him Lathe. He will bring you such joy as you have never known.”
Hearing this, the queen took the goblet in her hands. As she brought it to her lips, the crone whispered in her ear: “But there is a price. I will give you a child, and I will take him away. I will reclaim what is mine. Your sorrows will be multiplied; your tears will tumble numberless to the earth.”
For a moment, both were silent, and then the queen took her fill from the cup.
No, we aren’t at the part with the fairy godmother yet. Be patient. We haven’t even gotten to the infant yet, mind you.
Nine months later, the queen gave birth to a son. The king looked with pride at his heir. He called him Lathe.
The infant’s quiet smiles delighted the queen. Despite her newfound happiness, however, she was haunted by the crone’s words. Terrified, she confessed the curse to her husband. “Foolish woman!” he said. “Our son shall be a slave to a creature of the otherworld.”
“I ask not for your forgiveness,” said the queen, “for I know that I do not deserve it. But please, protect our son. I cannot bear to lose him.”
The king had a sorcerer place a spell on the palace that prevented all intruders from entering its walls. It was agreed that Lathe should never leave the palace, for if he did not know the temptations of the outside world, he would never desire to leave its sanctuary.
Lathe spent his days in the southern turret, where his mother would visit and read him stories of heroes and faraway lands. He adored his mother’s company, but he was often lonely. The queen, seeing this, would bring him small figurines shaped like various beasts. In time, Lathe began to fashion creatures out of wood and paint landscapes on his walls. His room became a menagerie of eagles flying over canyons and stallions racing through fields.
On his eighteenth birthday, his parents prepared a great feast for him. As he dressed for the celebration, he glanced out the narrow window of the turret, and beyond its walls stood a woman more beautiful than he had ever dreamed. Her alabaster limbs were long and supple, and her golden hair cascaded down the contours of her torso.
(Why are the women always blonde, you ask? Why are they comely and lithe and lily-white? That is another beast. I will tell you when you are older.)
“Prince,” the woman said, her dulcet voice echoing up the long rows of stones that guarded the tower, “abandon your prison, and I shall show you the pleasures of the world. Feel the sun on your skin, taste the honey of the land. Come, meet me!”
“But how?” he called.
“Remove your majestic garments and wear your tunic so that you will pass unnoticed,” the woman said. “Make your way down the turret and into the banquet hall. The servants and guards are busying themselves with preparations. At the back of the kitchen is a small door, hidden behind shelves of bread, and through that door you shall find me. Make haste, for time is running out.”
The prince cast off his purple robes, flew down the winding flight of stairs, and burst into the kitchen. He pushed his way through the bustling servants and flung open the door. As the light of the sun pierced through the doorway, he shielded his eyes.
The woman smiled. “You’ve returned to me.” She began to laugh when he stepped outside. As he drew closer, her laughs became cackles, and her golden locks fell off her head, revealing a mess of grey hair. The world around them dissolved, and he found himself inside the walls of a windowless cottage.
Here is where the story really gets going. Hold your questions for now. You’ll thank me later.
A faint glow filled the stone crevices of Lathe’s cell. Apart from the cot upon which he lay, its only furnishing was a small table with a lantern. The lantern cast upon the wall silhouettes of the outside world: flickers of birds darting through a birch tree, corn swaying in the wind, rabbits weaving through the stalks. He stood to inspect these figures, but iron shackles restrained him.
The door of the cell flung open, and his chains dragged him forward. They led him through the cottage and its oddities: birds in an iron cage, butterflies pinned and mounted, a compendium of potions, bones that were bent and bowed, and a wall of clocks ticking and tocking in unison. As he arrived outside, his chains rooted themselves in the soil.
In front of him stood the crone, who stared out into the cornfield. She turned towards him, handed him a satchel containing a sickle, and said:
Swing the sickle that you wield
And clear the stalks from my cornfield.
When no more husks are in the lea,
Then you shall once again be free.
With these words she vanished. Lathe picked up the sickle and began to slash with all his might. His chains extended as he wove through the field, but they pulled him back again when he reached the edge. As the sun set, the chains dragged him to the cell, where he fell into a deep slumber.
Lathe was hopeful when he awoke to the flickering of the magic lantern. But when he emerged, his heart sunk. The corn he had cut down the day before had already grown back. “I must cut down the entire field today or else my work will be in vain,” he thought.
As twilight filled the horizon, though, the field still bristled with swaying stalks. He repeated this task day after day, each time clearing more of the field, but never enough to earn his freedom. Home seemed no more real to him now than the silhouettes of the magic lantern.
One day, having abandoned hope of ever completing his task, Lathe ran to the edge of the field. He pulled against his shackles until they cut into his wrists, but they did not budge. He sat down, leaned against a birch tree, and began to sob.
Lathe, a voice said, do not be sad, for hope is not lost. Lathe looked up at the birch’s honey-colored leaves and realized that the voice came from the tree.
“But no matter how much corn I cut down, it always grows back,” Lathe said. “I shall never see my family again.”
The birch bent its branches down. “I can help you. My name is Ivory. I am your fairy godmother, but the crone turned me into a tree before you were born. I have yet a little fairy magic in me. Though it is not enough to free myself, with your help we can escape.” Ivory’s leaves swayed in the wind. “You must be brave,” she said, “and careful not to let the crone catch you. Inside the cottage, there is a clock made of bronze. Bring me this clock.”
The next day, Lathe spotted the bronze clock as the chains dragged him past the wall. He took the clock, slipped it into his satchel, and brought it to Ivory. She took the clock into her branches and said, “Among the crone’s potions, there is a bottle made of silver. Bring me this bottle.”
The next day, Lathe spotted the silver bottle as the chains dragged him past the crone’s potions. He took the bottle, slipped it into his satchel, and brought it to Ivory. She took the bottle up into her branches and said, “Next to the birdcage, there is a spool of rope made of gold. Bring me this rope.”
The next day, Lathe spotted the golden rope as the chains dragged him past the birdcage. He took the rope, slipped it into his satchel, and brought it to Ivory. She took the rope up into her branches and said, “You must weave this rope in a spiral through the field.” Lathe unspooled the golden rope as he circled through the field and back.
Ivory bent down her branches and handed him the clock. “Inside this clock there are many gears,” she said. “Take these gears and slip them onto the end of the rope.” Lathe’s nimble hands took apart the clock. As he arranged the bronze gears in a row on the rope, each gear grew larger, turned on its side, and wound upon the one in front of it. The gears hurtled across the rope and throughout the field, cutting down the corn.
When the last stalk fell, Ivory tipped over the silver bottle. Water flowed and flowed from it, filling the field. The flood swept the cottage away, and the crone’s cackles faded into the distance.
With the curse broken, Lathe’s shackles shattered and Ivory became a fairy once again.
What happens next, you ask? You want a love story. We can try that out.
Let’s switch to the present tense. Lathe and Ivory live happily ever after. They return to Lathe’s kingdom, where the king and queen rejoice. The sun bleaches the crone’s bones in the barren field.
With her fairy magic restored, Ivory shows Lathe the world, its hues and whispers and sighs. She dances barefoot in brooks, her honey-colored hair streaming through the air. Lathe has never seen anything so beautiful.
In time, they are wed. Lathe ascends to the throne, where he rules with wisdom and quiet dignity. His fairy-turned-wife is never far from his side, and her laughter enchants the people of the land. She bears him three children, who are filled with fay curiosity. Through the years, Lathe and Ivory regale others with tales of their heroic escape.
They sit by the fire, Ivory’s now-gray head upon Lathe’s shoulder, and fall asleep.
Sweet, yes, but it doesn’t work. Fairy godmothers aren’t meant to be lovers. You see that now.
Let’s try a tragic ending instead. After all, tropes are meant to be broken, aren’t they?
Lathe and Ivory have been through the gates of Hell, and they have returned.
But the ghosts of the field haunt Ivory’s dreams. She fears the crone is still alive, her magic stronger than ever. As she settles into sleep, she feels the bark ascending her arms and wakes in paralyzed terror. The light of her magic begins to dim.
Lathe, who has spent his life with books for company, does not know what to do with this strange creature, this feverish fairy. One day, he locks the door to his turret. Ivory pounds and pounds until crimson trickles down her pale limbs, but the door does not open. She returns to her fairy sisters, and Lathe returns to solitude.
They do not speak of their time together again.
That doesn’t satisfy you either. You say you want the truth. Child, the truth doesn’t make for a good story. It is too wayward, too jagged. When we try to box it up, it escapes at the seams.
But if you must know the truth, then here it is: Lathe and Ivory go on. They dream, they wake, they breathe—sometimes together, but more often apart. The crone and the boundless fields fade to gray silhouettes flickering on the balusters of memory.
They laugh, they cry, they hope. The world unfolds upon the horizon.
Kristen VanBlargan lives in New Haven, Connecticut. Her fiction has appeared in Timeless Tales and is forthcoming inTailfins & Sealskins: An Anthology of Water Lore (Three Drops Press). She blogs at https://kristenvanb.wordpre