June 20, 2021

EC's 2021 Summer Solstice Contest Winner: The Queen of Summer, by Lissa Sloan

Editor’s note: EC is excited to announce Lissa Sloan as the winner of our 2021 Summer Solstice Story contest! The long, midsummer days, the casually imparted wonders, the rivalry between two sisters, and the love, too, are all beautifully interwoven by Lissa in her story. Lissa is an old friend of EC, so we are very happy to have new work from her!

My sister was always the lucky one. If she forgot to bring the washing in, it would be a clear night with no rain. And in the morning, shirts and shifts and petticoats would all be hanging on the line, just as she had left them. If she spent the afternoon daydreaming and burned the only meat we got all week, my father would come in from the mill and go straight to bed, saying he wasn't hungry.


She was the pretty one, too. Women at the market slipped her extra sweet pastries, and men gathered around her like cats after a piece of fish. She was the pride of the village and a prize to be won.


It was not her fault, of course. Nothing ever was. "It's not like I ask for these things to happen," she told me one year at Midsummer as I wove daisies, honeysuckle, and forget-me-nots into a garland for her hair. She would be queen at the festival that night. Again. She had been chosen every year since her slim body rounded into curves.


So of course, last year when the king rode by, it was my sister that Father bragged about. He never would have said I could spin straw into gold. No one would have believed it of me. But of the girl so beautiful the village elders ignored the rules that the Queen of Summer must be a different girl every year? A daughter like that was someone to be proud of.


When the king ordered her to the palace to prove my father's claims, I thought I would never see my sister again. Yes, she was lucky, but to do the impossible—to spin three rooms full of straw into gold in the course of three nights? Each room bigger, each night shorter, than the last. Even my sister was not that lucky.


On the shortest night, I didn’t go to the village green to see a new summer queen crowned. I didn’t pick seven flowers out of my own garland and lay them on my pillow, hoping to dream of who my future husband would be. I went to bed before the sun had set and lay awake all night, wondering what my sister could possibly be doing in that room full of straw with only a spinning wheel for company. Not spinning, if I knew her at all.


And yet, somehow, she was lucky again. She accomplished the impossible. The next morning, after a night so short it seemed the sun had barely gone down before it rose again, the king announced their betrothal with her at his side. I had to admit she looked beautiful, smiling as if she deserved it all. I choked down the question on my tongue: how lucky was she really? To marry a king so enamored of gold he would put an innocent girl to death if she couldn’t create three rooms full of it at his command?


I knew she couldn't have done it. She wasn't even good at ordinary spinning. Surely she would tell me later—how she had gotten away with it. But no. She just sat there in our kitchen, going on about carriages, dresses, jewels, and servants. I couldn't ask her. She would only stare at me, her wide eyes reproachful—didn’t I believe in my own sister? So I said nothing and went on shelling peas. And speaking of servants, I must come with her to the palace to be her waiting woman. She couldn't do without her sister. I would come, wouldn't I?


I packed my things.


It has been a year, or nearly so. The shortest night is almost here again. Everywhere feasts are being prepared and Midsummer bonfires are being laid in village greens throughout the land. Garlands woven for new summer queens.


Now, at last, she has told me. I came into her room with some fresh linens, and there she was, clutching the baby to her. Her cheeks were wet with tears. Now I know about the odd little man, and the horrible bargain she made.


"I guess that's that," I say. She has been caught at last. Oddly, I don't feel the sense of satisfaction I thought I might. How can I, with her sitting there, clinging to my nephew, her eyes red rimmed. She is not even pretty like this. Her face is blotchy; her nose is red.


She asks what I mean, her voice a whisper she can barely choke out.


"You gave your word," I say. She looks as if she doesn't understand me. "That you would give him up."


“If I lose his son, he’ll kill me.” She holds the baby tighter. Again, I wonder at my sister’s  luck. Married to a man she cannot confide her wretched bargain to. Because he was the reason she made it. Her tears begin again.


I don't know. Of course she can't give him up. But this time, she may have to. I say the obligatory words. That I wish there was something I could do.


She grabs my sleeve. There is something I can do—if I can guess his name—he gave her three days. I could find her names—all the names in the kingdom. She has hope now.


And what do I have? I have the three longest days. Surely I can do the impossible for her this time. And unlike the odd little man who rescued her last time, I will not even ask for payment.


I’ve always been the good one, she says. I’ve always been the clever one. I can find his name. She sighs contentedly, as if it is already done, and runs her finger along her baby's cheek. "I can keep him, and no one will ever know." She looks at me. "You will do it, won't you?"


I get my cloak.


I have walked the kingdom. Up to the mountains and down to the valleys the first day. I came back with my cloak ripped ragged by brambles, and my head full of names. Names like William and Liam and Billy and Bill. James, Jamie, and Jim. Hans, Sean, Ian, and John. But none of them were the one.


The second day I went to the ocean; I crossed brooks and rivers and creeks and streams. I came back with my skirt caked to the knees in mud, and my head full of names. Names like Edgar, Edmund, and Edward. Reginald and Archibald and Willibald. Frederick, Francis, and Frank. But none of them were the one.


Today, the third day, I crossed meadows and moors, marshes and bogs. I am coming back with my feet rubbed raw and blistered, and my head full of names. Names like Thumbling, Thrushbeard, and Rinkrank. Shorty and Shifty and Handy. Longshanks and Crookshanks and Stumpy. Surely one of these will be the one.

But what if I have failed? Will my sister be unlucky for once? Will her bad bargain come down on her head at last? I do not wish it on her, not really. I am not as bad as all that. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't curious. 


I must hurry on. He will be at the castle at midnight, and my sister will need the names. They are her only chance. But there is a stone in my shoe. It has been there through the last three villages, so I stop to take it out. That's when I smell the wood smoke and see the firelight flickering up ahead. Perhaps, even now, there is one person in the kingdom I have not asked about the names they know. 


I am not good, but I am dutiful. I step off the path and through the trees. And I hear a lone voice singing. Should I make this one last stop? Who would be singing in the middle of a wood? Everyone in the kingdom has gathered in their village greens and squares, decked in ribbons, crowning their new summer queens with flower garlands. They are dancing, singing, eating, laughing, jumping over midsummer bonfires, young people sneaking off into the woods in pairs. The light is fading, my stomach is rumbling, and my feet are aching. I should get back.

I am not clever, but I am thorough. I edge closer, toward the firelight, toward the voice, and look out from behind a tree. I see one extraordinary man dancing around an ordinary fire. An odd little man. He is singing about how happy, how lucky he is. How he will take the baby because the queen can never guess. He is the lucky one because she will never guess that his name is...


In the firelight, there is a sweetness to his face. I feel almost sorry for him, because he is wrong. He is not the lucky one. My sister is the lucky one. Again.


Bio: Lissa Sloan's poems and short stories are published in Enchanted Conversation, Krampusnacht: Twelve Nights of Krampus, Frozen Fairy Tales, and Skull & Pestle: New Tales of Baba Yaga.  “Death in Winter,” her contribution to Frozen Fairy Tales, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.


Image is “Dante’s Vision of Rachel and Leah,” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.


Kelly Jarvis said...

I just love this midsummer twist on a classic fairy tale! Beautiful! <3

Lissa Sloan said...

Thank you, Kelly!

Lauren A Mills said...

This was wonderful! I love the angle of the sister. This could be a novel.

Lissa Sloan said...

Thank you, Lauren! I have always been troubled by the miller's daughter going back on her bargain (though, of course, it was a terrible bargain that she was forced to make). But this seemed a good way to explore it for me.

Alexandra Otto said...

This is a sad yet lovely retelling. I love the repetition in the lines “I am not good, but I am dutiful” and “I am not clever, but I am thorough.” Beautiful.

Lissa Sloan said...

Thank you, Alexandra!

Mandy said...

I love this re-telling! The lines stick with you! And how the first and last lines come back around "My sister was always the lucky one"..."He is not the lucky one. My sister is the lucky one. Again." Also love how the picture from Dante ties in with the story!