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  • Writer's pictureEnchanted Conversation

Stained by Raina Alidjani

I stand over the well, fingering the flint in my hand. My breath catches, and I feel like I am going to cry. Smacking myself hard across my stained face, I snap out of it.

I light the dynamite, roped together like a bouquet, and toss it. Taking quick steps back, my eyes widen as I hear the plop of the sticks hitting the dry bottom and then finally the sweet release of the explosion. Like my rage, the fireball snakes its way into the air before it retreats, collapsing in on itself –– barring my tormentor from my world once and for all.

I was fifteen when my stepsister, Mariel, returned, dripping in gold. Mother came to wake me, crying tears of joy, and I rushed from my room to greet her. She had been gone two weeks, and we had scoured the forest for any sign of her.

I rushed down the steps to behold her, glowing in the backdrop of the morning sun. Her yellow hair matched the golden bracelets that made their way up both arms, her narrow frame weighed down by pendants and gems. My mouth hung open.

We’d resigned ourselves to the fact that she might never return. 

Soon, we’d wish she hadn’t.

Mariel’s father was my mother’s second husband. We had been born in the same year, under the same harvest moon, but our blood was different. She was light all over – thin, blonde, with ice-blue eyes and a voice that sounded like air. I was dark all over – brown and muddy with dimpled thighs and a hearty laugh that erupted at the most inopportune times.

When her father died, my mother untangled his web of debts and took Mariel on as her own. We were inseparable until our monthly bleeding began and our differences became salient.

“Did you notice Charles looking at me today?” She asked as we walked home from school.

“No. Why?” I already knew why.

“He was looking. Perhaps I’ll marry him if he’s lucky.”

I knew everyone looked at her. She had bloomed overnight. That didn’t bother me. What bothered me was that suddenly all she cared about was their approval.

“Eadie, can I stay home from school from now on?” She asked Mother over supper.

“Why would you want to do that?” Learning was important to Mother. She had never been given the chance to attend school and was proud that we could.

“I can help around here, learn things much more useful than anything in books. I want to learn to be a wife.”

I grimaced, looking at my mother and then back toward Mariel. I had tried to talk her out of it.

“You’ll stay in school until you’ve finished. You’ll have your whole life to learn about that.” My mother was stoic and gray from burying two husbands and meant what she said.

“I can help you with your work,” Mariel pleaded.

Mother pursed her lips and set down her fork. “I said no.”

“You just don’t want anyone to marry me. You know no one will ever want Brie and you’re jealous. You want us to both be stuck with you forever,” she spat and ran from the house.

I’d never thought about marriage, but the words stung. I knew their underlying meaning: Brie is ugly, Brie is unlovable, I don’t love her. She was my only friend, and she thought nothing of me. 

That was the last I saw of Mariel before she showed up decked in gold.

 “Where have you been?” I felt the release of all my fears for her safety.

“Look at me,” She twirled and laughed airily.

“Mother lost her job looking for you. I’ve missed school.” Relief turned to rage.

“Did you steal this, child?” Mother walked over to her, inspecting.

“Earned it.”

“There’s no honest way to have earned all of this in two weeks.” Mariel snapped her hand back from Mother’s touch.

“When I ran from here, I was so upset I didn’t notice where I was going. I ran right into the well deep in the woods and fell in. I thought I was doomed.”

A knot of guilt formed in my stomach for not following her into the woods where it’s known that fairies reside.

“I landed on a bed of flowers. The dark and cold were replaced by warm sunlight. For a moment, I thought I was in heaven but then an old woman beckoned to me. I followed her to a small cottage. Only it wasn’t small once you entered it. Once you were in, it went on and on and was filled with the most beautiful treasures.”

“And then?” I asked, breathless. Mother had sat down with a hand over her heart.

“It was Mother Holle from the nursery rhymes. She knew me and promised to give me what I wanted if I would keep her house spotless and prove what a good woman I was. I worked tirelessly to cook her beautiful meals, ensure her linens were freshly pressed, and not a speck of dust was left behind. In return, she gave me all of this.”

She jingled her arms, her bangles clanking in a cacophonous melody.

“I’m so happy for you.” I wanted to embrace her, my anger fading.

“You are not. You are a sullen girl I’ve had to pretend to like so your mother would keep me fed. I’ve just returned to show you I don’t need you and never have. With this dowry, I will fetch a prince.”

With those hateful words, she was gone from our lives, with only a few tattered dresses to remember her by.

My mother’s employers never forgave her for missing those weeks, and soon we scavenged the edge of the forest for berries to satiate our growling bellies.

“Brie, you must go to the well.” Mother gripped me by both arms one day when we could take it no longer.

“Mother, I don’t know how to keep a house.” But I knew there was no use arguing. It was our only choice.

That night I cried, hugging my books. Mariel’s words repeated in my head so loud I couldn’t sleep.

Mother accompanied me to the well and urged me to stand on the precipice. When I could not bring myself to jump into its black depths, she closed her eyes tight and pushed me. I fell, my screams echoing through the abyss until finally, as Mariel said I would, I landed on a bed of soft flowers.

“Well then, I guess you’ll be coming with me, Brienne,” an old woman who seemed to be expecting me beckoned to follow her, using my full name.

“Mother Holle?” I knew her instantly. A kerchief tied her white ringlets back, and she walked with a cane, although her gait showed she had no real use for it.

“I am she. And you, have come for my gold. Have you not?” she pointed the cane toward me, knocking me gently on the chest.

I nodded sheepishly. There didn’t seem to be any point in pretending.

“I’m afraid no amount of gold will buy you a prince.”

“I don’t need a prince.” We began to walk through the forest. The trees seemed to move just in time for us to pass. “I just need enough money to keep my family fed until we can secure jobs.”

“And what type of job would that be?” She looked down her long nose at me.

I shrugged. “School teacher, perhaps.” It had been my dream for as long as I could remember.

Humph, she frowned. “I won’t be having any talk of that here. Here, I reward grace, femininity, and beauty, not brains. You are no beauty, so you must be graceful as a gazelle to win my favor.”

“I’ll do my best,” I swallowed sharply. No one had ever called me graceful before. “What if I don’t live up to your standards?”

“Then you’d best leave now. You don’t want to test my patience.”

She held out her hand, and a portal opened. Through it was my home, and I could see my mother lying in bed, sobbing.

“No.” I let my gaze fall from the scene. I couldn’t go back empty-handed.

“Well then, you should know I like my tea piping hot, but not so much so that it burns my tongue. I’ll show you to the wash basin so that you can start on the laundry.” She snapped her fingers, and a biscuit appeared in her hand. “I think you’ll be needing this for energy.”

“If you can snap your fingers like that and have food appear. What do you need me for?” I asked in between bites, allowing my curiosity to outweigh my fear. I did my best to keep crumbs from falling onto the floor, gathering them into my hands and stuffing them into my pockets.

“Do you think the husbands can’t do what the wives do and vice versa? Of course, they can.” She wagged her finger at me. “I am teaching you many lessons already.”

I started with the laundry. Before the day's end, I’d stained her whites, pink, knocked over a precious vase or two, burned her tongue with hot tea, and stepped on her cat’s tail. Despite my mistakes, she never raised her voice at me or her hand. I knew I’d likely not get much gold, but I hoped she’d spare a trinket or two for trying. We didn’t need much.

“Enough,” she said finally with a clap of her hands after three days of torture. I missed my home and despite the beauty that surrounded me, there was nothing to occupy my brain aside from work.

“Have I completed the test?” I was hopeful.

“Yes. You’ve completed enough for me to see your worth.”

She twirled her hands, and I saw my mother again, mending a dress by the hearth.

“You may go now.”

“And the gold?” I didn’t want to disappoint Mother. She had been disappointed enough in her life, and one daughter had already abandoned her.

Mother Holle let out a cackle at that.

“This is your payment for being useless.” She flung out her hand, and a sticky black substance was launched through the air, covering me from head to toe and propelling me through the portal.

When I reached our home, I landed at Mother’s feet, gasping for air as the tar filled my lungs.

Pitch stains skin – especially supernatural pitch created by a fairy mother. I didn’t leave the house for a month – scrubbing, scrubbing. Mother and I both scrubbed until my skin turned red and raw underneath the black.

There are still some spots dotting my cheeks and my forehead, but in my classroom, the girls don’t mind. We learn. We laugh heartily, and we eat, allowing crumbs to fall to the floor as we share ideas. Mother doesn’t mind cleaning them up if we let her in on our jokes.

We heard that Mariel married a Duke of something or other soon after my return from the well. I’d become nearly as famous for my stains as she had for her gold, and word of the misfortune must have reached her. She sent a small bauble, with no note, saving us from hunger and cold until we could get back on our feet. In return, when we heard she had died in childbirth, we lit candles in her honor and cried for the child she once was.

Today, I went to the well, a place I have feared for so long, with dynamite in my hands to make sure none of my girls ever go in search of gold or promises of love that must be bought and worked for. When they find love, which we all deserve, they will find it on their own terms, as I have. 

Raina Alidjani lives in Philadelphia with her husband, toddler, and cat.  She works in advertising by day and writes feminist speculative fiction by night. Her short stories have been published by Myth & Lore, The Raven Review, Heartland Society of Women Writers, Mulberry Literary, and The Selkie

Image by Arthur Rackham.



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