A variation on Snow White, about innocence and experience
|Whenever Blanca combed her hair she remembered her mother. When Blanca was very little, she believed her hair must one day turn golden, and then she would be exactly like Mother. Golden hair reminded her of sunlight on summer fields, of the honey Mother let her pour into the loaves they baked for the poor and sick, "so the sweet of a child's love may be added to the sweet of the bread." And when they took those loaves on visits the neighbors might smile and coo at the child, but adoration radiated from their faces when they looked upon Mother. But then Mother caught the plague, and Blanca didn't. Now, besides memories, all Blanca had of her was a silver locket with a strand of golden hair.
Now almost grown, Blanca knew that her hair would never turn golden. Its blackness held no sunlight, no sweetness. Everyone told her she had skin white as snow and lips red as a brier rose, but Blanca always felt something was wrong about that hair, something fearful, something cut apart from Mother. So she kept it under a scarf covered with roses, and wore the locket always.
Two years after Mother's death, Father, a merchant, brought a new wife home from one of his trips to Madrid. Stepmother was dark and elegant, not like Mother at all. At first Stepmother frightened Blanca, but after a few weeks she decided it was time to know the new woman of the house. She didn't see why Papa needed a new wife, but she mustn't be a baby about it -- even if those emerald eyes did remind her of a knowing cat. Blanca took a silver tray laden with tea and pastries up to Stepmother's room. Seeing that Stepmother was still dressing, Blanca paused outside the room, her eyes wide.
Stepmother didn't see her. She was busy painting kohl around those uncanny eyes, peering into her looking glass. She even spoke to it. “Mirror, I tell you this: At dawn I may look an old woman, but by the time you and I have our little time each day, I still --” The silver tray caught a ray of the rising sun and reflected it at the mirror. Stepmother caught sight of Blanca and smiled.
Blanca, flustered, brought in the tea. She chattered some nonsense as she smoothed and dusted her way around the room, fingering fine dresses while she straightened, frowning at a row of tiny black bottles. From that time on she watched Stepmother. The woman had run a business in Madrid, and started one now in their own little town. While the sun shone she sought herbs in the foothills; in the evenings she set up shop as a healer. People came to her for possets and salves and medicines, and sometimes to get their tea leaves read. Some gladly paid her for her services; others talked.
One night, Blanca found her father alone by the fireplace. She could keep quiet no longer. “Papa, do you not think Stepmother is awfully busy with her herbs?”
“That she is, Hija. It is good. It brings extra money into the house, and helps the neighbors to accept her in your mother's--” He glanced at her and broke off. “It will help them accept her.”
“Money it may bring, Papa, but I am not so sure the neighbors like it. Some call her a witch.”
“Ha, a witch, is it?” He held her shoulders and smiled, but some doubt lay behind that smile. “Listen, Blancacita. Some people are superstitious fools. Yet even they come to a healing woman soon enough, when they fall ill or the time comes for them to bear a child. There is no need to listen to gossip.”
But Blanca did listen, and as time went on she grew more alarmed. Some whispered that the Inquisitors might visit, and one rumor even suggested Blanca's pretty face was the result of some potion. Mother's sister, Magdalena, told tales of women who posed as healers but then put curses on people and livestock. This glamorous woman, with her strange eyes and pointed features -- might she be an evil witch?
One evening Blanca saw Stepmother again before her mirror, murmuring to it. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?” Stepmother stood and put her face to the mirror, as if listening for a reply. She must be crazy, or drunk, to always speak to a mirror as if it could hear. Or maybe the gossip was true -- could the mirror be enchanted? Perhaps Stepmother was something worse than crazy or drunk.
Blanca tried to speak with Papa on several occasions, but he would hear no word against his wife. Father's complacency scared her. What if Papa was bewitched? She could not clear these thoughts from her head, and at last she felt she must escape. By now Blanca was old enough to work; miners in the hills often needed housemaids. She made up her mind to leave, and one morning before dawn she ran away from their little town, up through the forest to the silver-mining region.
* * *
Paths laced all through the foothills, but as Blanca got higher into the mountains the way became less and less clear. One path lead nowhere, and another veered steeply onto some rocky slope, so that often she needed to backtrack. By the time the sun went down she had no idea how far from home she had progressed. She'd eaten her lunch and had no more food. All she had was her dress, her cloak, and the silver locket around her neck.
One path gradually changed into a tangle of foliage. It became so narrow that the brambles scratched her arms and vines blocked the path. Blanca was about to backtrack once again, when she noticed a bit of thatch showing above the foliage. Blanca pushed forward, and very soon came to a cottage.
Inside was a mess. Food, clothing, whittling, and books lay scattered all about. The whole cottage consisted of one big room with a pantry off to the side. It held a fireplace and rough but comfortable furniture, including seven beds. This must be some dormitory for silver miners; perhaps they might hire her. A stream rushed just outside the back door.
Blanca sniffed the food; it was perfectly good, but cold. At first she just covered the food and folded a few clothes. But no one came home, and she grew bolder. She lit a fire and put a pot over it, cut up the best leftovers for stew and nibbled at the rest. She tidied up the room, set the clean table with a place by each of the seven chairs, and made the beds. Satisfied, she stirred the stew and yawned. Tired after her long day she lay down on one of the beds, pulled the cover up, and dozed off.
The door opened and woke her. A lantern edged in, followed by voices, talking and then exclaiming when they saw the state of their home. Too frightened to make a sound, she hid beneath a blanket, clutching her locket.
“We be robbed!”
“Robbed! Are ye daft? What kind of robbers make supper and set the table?”
“Me whittling knife, me wood, all them books you be reading, where'd they go?”
“Nothing be stole, ye moron, only put away. See? Here's yer whittling knife!”
“Not my fault I can't never clean up after--”
“Shhhht! Mayhap whosomever did it be still about. Here, bring that lantern and let's look us around.”
Blanca lay still, but inevitably they came to the bed where she hid. One of them tugged the blanket down, exposing her face. When Blanca saw them she nearly screamed. Bright eyes peered at her in the lantern light, set in such wrinkled and filthy skin that they scarcely looked human. They crowded over her, bent and grimy and gnarled. Blanca had seen miners about town, and knew their work made them rough, but she'd never seen them up close.
One man coughed. “'Tis, err, seems to be a girl.”
The rest started talking and coughing too. “I was not afeared. Was ye afeared?”
“You's the one said it was robbers. I'm sure I never.”
“Can we keep 'er?”
“Hmmm.” The one with the lantern addressed Blanca. “It's apparent you can cook and keep house, lass. We be not civilized men nor very clean, but we be honorable. Foreigners from the north we are, and no folks hereabouts will hire a daughter to us. But we be sore in need o' some help. What name have ye?”
The miners repeated the name as if it were the finest they'd ever heard. But when they tried to teach her how they were called, the foreign names stuck on her tongue. They laughed and said she might call them after the days of the week, as there were seven of them.
Their good cheer reassured Blanca. “I came up from town looking for work.”
“Well, you be young but you do quite fine by the likes of us, I suppose. It happens we have money a-plenty, but I can no think me where you may spend--”
“It matters not. All I ask for is a home, and for you to hide me.”
“Hide ye, Blanca?”
“Yes, I must hide from my stepmother. She is very wicked.” Now that she said it, she felt convinced it must be true.
* * *
Winter came. Every day but Sunday the men went out into the mountains. Their work made them bent and old before their time, but by living frugally they survived well enough. Sometimes one or the other would fall ill with the coughing sickness, and Blanca would tend him for a day before he went back to work. They made a little place for her in the pantry, with a bed and dresser they crafted themselves. Blanca settled in, scrubbed, cooked, and sewed. The grateful men took to washing for supper when they came home.
Sundays they whittled and sang, and Blanca worked hard to make them a feast. She spent time with each of them, since that made them so happy, and they treated her as a beloved daughter. When they took their ore to town, they brought back such items as they deemed she might like: cloth, delicate foods, a cuckoo clock. When no one came looking for her, Blanca grew less fearful.
One morning in early spring, she heard the twitter of a bird outside. Early sun warmed the air, so she opened a window before going back to her scrubbing. When she turned around, a small blue bird perched on the windowsill. Blanca laughed when the little scamp jumped in, and started pecking crumbs off the countertop between bursts of song. Soon a dozen of its friends appeared. Between them they pecked up all the crumbs, sparing Blanca one chore. Slowly, gently she approached the little flock, and though they danced away at first, soon she had them pecking crumbs from her fingertips and allowing her to stroke their soft backs. Whichever little fellow got the perch of her right shoulder whistled with pride.
She opened the front door to toss the old water out, and was startled to see a doe and fawn trot over to lap at it. “Pah, that water is no good! Dear fawn, are you too little to drink from the stream? Then I shall bring fresh water!” She ran to the stream that rushed behind the house. The water she brought back for her new friends sparkled, and cold as it was they finished it. Blanca talked to the mother deer, while the little one drank and allowed her to pet it.
The next day Blanca couldn't wait to see whether the birds and the deer would come back. She threw open the front door. The doe and fawn waited at the edge of the woods.
“Hello, hello! Oh, you came back!” She stepped into the fresh morning. “But-- what is this?”
Where yesterday's scrub water had sunk into the packed earth, seedlings sprouted. In this short time they already grew leaves and flowers – violets and lettuce and carrots and foxglove. She brought more water out and dumped it on the ground. Wherever she did, flowers and vegetables popped up, sunflowers and fruit bushes burst forth, and all manner of life emerged into the sunlight. Even roses and an apple tree sprang up, vigorous and growing. Blanca spent a happy day tending the unexpected garden. The doe showed her where to look in the forest for stakes, and the birds brought pieces of string. At dusk the miners were amazed to find their beaten patch of yard transformed into a pleasant cottage garden.
All spring, as her poppies and daffodils bloomed and the apple tree set fruit, Blanca made friends with all the woodland animals. When her dress became too tight for her budding figure, some crows brought swatches of colorful fabric, bright gold buttons, and bits of ribbon which she sewed into a new dress. Once she was ready to try it on, the little birds borrowed her needle and thread, wove in and out of the fabric to finish the hem and sleeves for her. They used their clever beaks to dab the dress all over with bright bows, and the crows kept coming back with bits of jewelry which they fixed all about the dress. Blanca had to laugh; this looked like the sort of dress birds would design. Still, it was whimsically pretty. She wondered where the crows found such treasure. The leftover fabric made a matching scarf, to cover her dark hair.
A fox brought two chickens for her pot. The fine meal delighted the miners, but later Blanca thought she heard whispering about where such plump fowls could have come from. Nevertheless, Blanca had shown such delight that from then on the fox brought her meat. He was careful never to kill any of her rabbit friends.
And so Blanca spent many happy days in the cottage and garden and almost forgot her life in town, except on those occasions when she would finger the silver locket and remember her good mother. The miners adored her, and every living thing in her little woods knew her as a friend. Blanca never felt lonely.
One noontime late in spring she grew weary of tending the garden, and went to the back door of the cottage to enjoy the view across the stream. For while the house stood in dense forest, from the little back porch overlooking the water she could glimpse a meadow. It was a pleasant view; fish jumped out of the water to greet her, and an eagle flew in powerful circles above. A different sort of movement caught her eye. Peering through the trees she caught sight of a large animal grazing. A horse, that's what it was, a white horse over in the meadow. Strange, no people or horses ever came up here. Perhaps someone forgot to take off its tackle and tie it, let the beast wander off.
The tall man caught sight of her at the same moment she noticed him. The fine riding cloak in his hands, the well-made clothes and boots showed him to be a nobleman. He looked strong, tall, older than Blanca by several years. In spite of his dark hair, she thought him very handsome. The man smiled and waved.
Blanca, startled, turned and closed her eyes, but his crooked nose, his brilliant eyes and smile, stayed before her. She jolted the back door open and nearly fell in. For such a long time she had seen no one but the miners. She stood with her back up against the door, taking deep breaths until her heartbeat slowed. She remained indoors the rest of the day.
The next day she fetched water early to avoid the stranger, just in case he came again. But at noon she found she needed just a little more for her greens. She made sure the scarf rested neatly on her head and went behind the house. After she'd drawn the water she found herself waiting in the shadows, curious to see him again. When he appeared, she ran indoors.
Often in the following fortnight she saw him around noontide -- not every day, but on several occasions. The stranger would cast expectant looks toward the little cottage. After he passed, she went back to work and dreamed about who he might be: a noble lord out hunting, a wandering wizard, perhaps even a prince. At first she hid from him, but later she stood out on the porch and let him see her in the new dress the birds had made. Finally, she even ventured a shy smile and half a wave.
One day she came in the back door grinning, only to find Stepmother sitting at the table with an apple in her hand. Blanca closed the door, but her feet refused to move, as if they were nailed to the floor.
Stepmother took a dainty bite. “What were you doing?”
Blanca wanted to say “Nothing,” but found she couldn't speak.
“I suppose you're wearing that lovely, ah, dress, to fetch water? Never mind. It is so good to see you again, my child, and looking fit as a fig. And my, you have grown. Or perhaps I should say, filled out.” Not much escaped those emerald eyes. When Blanca still didn't speak she went on. “I suppose you're wondering how I knew where you live. Well, your father put out a reward for you, and a hunter came to us saying he found you pinned in a mine, dead. Said he couldn't remove the body, but brought the heart to prove you were dead. Said the mine caved in after he left. Ha, likely story, I thought. When I examined the heart, I found it to be that of a pig. I did not tell your father, for fear of giving him false hope. But I needed to see you for myself, and so checked around.”
Blanca stared at the floor. “I-- I didn't know. I had no idea anyone would go to such trouble for me.”
“Your father was worried sick. Even now, he has gone to the cathedral in Saragosa to say prayers for your soul. The thought of you lying in unhallowed ground troubles him deeply.” She scanned the room. “I'm sorry, dear, but could I trouble you for a little tea? I'm awfully thirsty. I've been walking since dawn.”
“Oh, of course!” Blanca busied herself heating water.
“At any rate, after your Papa left I heard something from a woman who came to me for a whooping cough elixir for her little one. She told me her employer saw a little girl living at some strange cottage in the woods. I got directions and, well, here I am.” Stepmother fetched a cup from her cloak and handed it to Blanca. She added, “My client is a high servant at the castle. The employer she spoke of is a prince.”
“A-- prince?” Blanca stood up from where she had been crouching near the fire, smoothing the beribboned dress.
Stepmother looked at her shrewdly. “Wait, what were you doing just now? Out in back, where there is nothing but that stream?”
Blanca again found herself speechless.
“Ahhhh.” Stepmother's red-stained lips spread into a wide smile. “Ah-hah.”
Blanca tucked a lock of stray hair back under her scarf, and puttered about fixing the tea. She made a cup for herself as well, wanting very much to have something to do with her hands. When it was ready the two sat and talked for some time about home, and about Blanca's life with the miners. At first Stepmother seemed worried about her employment, but Blanca eased her mind. Though no forest creatures came to visit, Blanca told about how they helped her. Stepmother listened with great interest.
As evening drew near, Stepmother stuffed the apple core into her pocket and stood up. “Though it is near on to Midsummer, it will grow dark before I reach town if I tarry longer.” She headed for the door with Blanca following.
“Stepmother, before you go, may I ask one thing?”
“The prince-- when he said there was a 'little girl' living here -- were those his own words?”
Stepmother turned in the doorway, and her shrewd eyes studied Blanca. “Yes, that is what he said. Perhaps, on another visit, I can help you to look-- older?”
“Oh yes, I would like that very much.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Blanca chided herself for sounding too eager.
Stepmother smiled. “Very well then. I will come soon.”
* * *
That Sunday, Blanca was letting Monday beat her at checkers when there was a knock at the door. She'd jumped two of his kings and had the four game pieces in her hand when she went to answer the door, but dropped them on seeing the prince. His tanned face broke into a smile; his tall, strong body, his black eyes, even the crooked nose appeared even more handsome up close.
"I've come to ask after--"
"I'll get one of the miners." She started to close the door in his face. Remembering herself she opened it again, turned, and ran back into the house. She smacked into Sunday, who was already approaching and greeting "Yer lordship." While the men made introductions, Blanca rushed outside. She bustled about, taking care of the horse. The whole household came out into the yard, making the prince comfortable in the sunlit garden, plying him with ale and bread and fishcakes. Though the prince admired Blanca's cooking and kept glancing her way, she stayed by the horse. She gave the animal water and treats and a good brushing, even braided flowers into its mane. She took pains not to look toward the prince.
She could not say what about the man made her stomach go tight, so that she had to think in order to breathe, which took the whole of her thoughts and left her legs to stumble about. Though royalty, he did not act high and mighty; quite the opposite, he treated the rough miners with earnest respect. Several times he commended to them their servant's way with the horse, but she pretended not to hear. She was relieved when he left. Nevertheless, thoughts of Prince Terrán stayed with her when she shut the door to her pantry that night.
* * *
Blanca saw neither Stepmother nor the Prince for several days. It seemed so dull now, going about everyday tasks: scrubbing the house, making pies from nuts the squirrels brought, overseeing the rabbits and badger as they built her a root cellar, tending the garden plants with their never-ending crops of fruit, playing tag with the fawn. Every midday she shuttled between the front and back of the cottage, looking for one visitor or the other.
One rainy day as she sat sewing new clothes for the miners – the crows had outdone themselves, bringing several bundles of sturdy wool weave – she heard a tap on the front door. She jumped to the door and there was Stepmother, standing in the rain with several parcels.
“Stepmother! It is so good to see you. What did you bring?”
“May I come in?”
“Oh yes, of course, do please! My, you're wet.”
Stepmother went by the fire and hung her soggy cloak over a chair. “Here, I brought you a more – ah – fashionable dress. It looks as if it only got a little wet. Here, why don't you take a look?”
Blanca ripped into the parcel. The touch of the smooth blue silk filled her with delight, and she almost laughed with joy at the depth of the color. “I'll take this into my little pantry and try it on.”
Stepmother smiled and nodded. As Blanca took off her old dress and put on the blue silk, Stepmother raised her voice to carry through the wall. “I'll just get myself some tea, if that's all right with you.” There was some bumping about in the main room as Stepmother looked about for the things she needed. “I'm sure you're wondering about your father. He's still not home, and I don't know when to expect him back. He may well have stopped at the monastery, seeking prayers for your soul.”
The dress buttoned on the side. Blanca noticed as she fastened the many shell buttons that it fit nice and snug at the waist, but gave a little more room in places her old dresses had clung too tight of late. She whished her hands over its silken front, and thought it fit just right.
Stepmother, still looking for the tea, smiled when Blanca returned.
Blanca drew her locket back over her head and covered her hair with the scarf. “What do you think?”
“I guessed your size pretty well, didn't I? Turn around.”
Blanca loved the swoosh of the silk as she moved. “Princes don't go out in the rain, do they?”
Stepmother laughed as she poured them tea. “Probably not. That shade of blue does well by you, shows off your eyes. But why do you cover your lovely hair?”
Blanca's face made a rueful twist. “Oh, that. It's so awful and dark.” Remembering that Stepmother had dark hair too, she blushed. “Not that dark hair is bad – I didn't mean to say that. But-- I don't know, I just don't think it suits me.”
“Do you think that because your mother was fair-haired?”
Blanca looked at the locket between her fingers; she hadn't noticed she was rubbing it. She sighed. “Maybe. Mother was so . . . good. When we visited the sick, I used to think there would be nothing better in life than to be exactly like her.” She took a deep breath, but the air stuck. “Then she died.”
Stepmother looked as close to tears as Blanca felt. “Yes. The plague was terrible.”
They sat in silence for several minutes. No birds came in, but their twittering harmonized with the patter of the rain.
“Dearheart,” Stepmother said finally, “I know I can never replace the mother you lost. But I would be your friend.”
Blanca nodded, regretting her earlier fears.
Stepmother went to her wet cloak and pulled a small packet out. “Here, I brought some things to make your hair pretty too. You may be dark, but you can yet have gold in your hair. See?” She opened the bundle, and drew out two golden combs, which flashed in the light of the hearth.
Blanca grabbed them, admiring their intricate design and glowing beauty. Her hand reached for the scarf, reluctantly. Still, she mustn't be rude; she slid it down to her shoulders. She ran the combs through her hair until they rested above her ears. The packet also contained a looking glass, which Stepmother held up for her.
Blanca clapped her hands in delight. “Oh, I look almost like a grown woman!” A chill ran over her collarbones, and she tugged the bodice upward.
“You look fine indeed, young woman.”
They visited for some time, and Stepmother told her a good bit about Prince Terrán. He was a good man, she said, the right hand to his father the King. They treated their subjects fairly and earned the love of all the people. The Prince would make a good catch for some young lady, but it was rumored that he would not marry until some girl caught his imagination better than any noblewoman had so far managed to do.
Finally there was a break in the rain, and Stepmother needed to set off for home. They said their goodbyes. Stepmother asked for an apple to take along. “There is something I can make for you, just a little surprise you may use if you like. I'll be back as soon as I'm able.”
* * *
The fox came early the next day with a pair of chickens. She plucked and gutted them and put them on a spit to cook later. The leftover parts she put on for broth; Tuesday was home with the terrible case of coughing sickness and would like some hot liquid when he woke. Blanca put on the blue dress and golden combs, and laughed when she looked in the mirror. The silver locket didn't look right, so she took it off and stuffed it into the dress' handkerchief pocket. “Tell me now, mirror, don't I look the lady?”
Leaving the pot simmering and the miner asleep, she took up her basket of laundry and went to do the wash. As soon as she got out the door, she felt something was different. The iris and lilies that had bloomed all spring showed some fading, and the daffodils had actually begun to wilt. The deer and fawn were nowhere to be seen, and a rabbit ran away when she closed the door. The birds sang, but stayed high in the branches. Blanca wrinkled her brow, confused.
When she got down to the little beach and started washing, she knew something must be wrong. Usually the otters and ducks would come right to her, and would take the miners' filthy clothes into the fast-running current to rinse. But no one appeared. Blanca started washing, hoping for one of the clownish ducks to come help, to make her laugh. This was hard work on her own. Nevertheless she scrubbed her way through the laundry, wrung out the pants and shirts and put them back into her basket. She always took them back to the house to hang, where they would catch more sun. Yet as she tried to lift the basket it felt almost too heavy to carry; her arms were tired from so much work, and the fawn wasn't there to help with his back. What could be wrong, that all her friends had forsaken her?
Blanca stood up straight and stretched up her tired arms. She noticed mud on the silk dress, where her knees had rested on the dirt and rocks. How silly of her to have worn it to do the cleaning. She unbuttoned the dress and pulled it off, thinking to get the dirt out quickly and throw the dress back on again. But then she felt eyes on her. She looked between the trees and saw that deer eyes watched, looking at her, looking at the grown-up dress.
She held up the blue silk and addressed them. “This is the problem, isn't it? This dress. You didn't come when I wore it. Does it bear some wicked enchantment?” The more she thought about it, the angrier she got. Impulsively she threw the dress into the stream, where the current rushed it away. She tossed the golden combs after it, wrapped herself in a wet blanket and ran back to the cottage, crying. She forgot all about the wash.
When she got to the cottage, she got out her sewing basket and her old dress, the one she had worn when she was a child at home. It was much too tight now in the hips and chest, but she ripped out the stitching and let the seams out as far as they would go. She sat by the fire with a wet blanket around her, sewing frantically, listening to Tuesday's rasping snore. She could just put the bird dress on, though lately that one barely fit either, but Blanca felt it terribly important to make this old dress fit.
There was a knock at the door, and Stepmother came in without waiting for an answer. She wore a simple brown dress today, and without makeup looked older than usual. “Blancacita, I am sorry, I cannot stay long. There is someone very sick in town with a bad heart, and I've used up what foxglove I had. I saw that you grow it here – may I?”
Blanca felt her mind swirling like an eddy in the stream. She hated to have any part in Stepmother's business, hated to give people an excuse to gossip. Stalling, she asked, “Who is ill?”
“Ah my dear, I am sorry to say it is your aunt, your mother's sister Magdalena.”
“Magdalena!” Blanca dropped her sewing. This was the same woman who had spread rumors before.
Stepmother touched the blanket Blanca had wrapped herself with. “Dearheart, is something wrong?”
“No, it is nothing, nothing really.”
Stepmother took her hand. “But your hand is cold, and that blanket, it's all wet! What happened to your new dress?”
“I-- cannot wear it, Stepmother. I am afraid of it. The animals will not come to me when I wear it.”
“Ay, that is sad, my dear, but you are growing up. That dress you wore as a girl will no longer fit, I fear. Growing up is good, but anything good comes with a cost. Your old magic may leave you, but you will see that new magic comes to replace it." She frowned. "You are not wearing your mother's locket.”
“Oh!” Blanca put her hand to her throat; she had not realized it was missing. “Where-- " Her whole body grew cold when she remembered what she had done. "Oh no, I must have thrown it away with the dress!” Blanca cried uncontrollably. “No, oh no! It had Mother's beautiful hair in it, a lock of her beautiful fair hair!” She seized up scissors from her sewing kit and chopped a dark lock from her own hair before Stepmother could stop her.
“No Blanca, don't!”
“But my hair is ugly! I am not like Mother – I am neither so good nor so fair!”
“That is not true. There are many pretty girls in town, but you are the fairest of them all.” Stepmother pried the scissors from her hand and tossed them to the floor. She held Blanca and stroked her hair. “As for goodness, you are but a child. Goodness is something that will develop when you start to look outside yourself. When you have seen a little of the suffering in this world, compassion will grow inside you, even as now your garden now grows.”
A fit of coughing interrupted. Tuesday sat up in bed, trying to say something, but all he could do was cough and choke.
Stepmother jumped up. “My goodness! I didn't know--”
Blanca wrapped the blanket tightly around her and ladled some broth into a wooden cup. By the time she brought it to the bed, Stepmother had a phial from her cloak uncorked. She swirled it in front of Tuesday's mouth and nose. “Suck in the vapors, deep as you are able.”
Tuesday did as she bid him. But to Blanca's dismay, he fell to coughing worse than ever. He hacked into a clean chamber pot and looked as if he were about to faint.
“Stepmother, what wickedness is this? You are killing him!”
“I know it looks bad, but he has to clear his lungs to be able to breathe. There now.” The coughing decreased, and she gave her handkerchief to Tuesday, who took in great gulps of air. She turned to Blanca. “I'm sure some of that broth will do him good now.”
Blanca spooned broth for the miner while Stepmother arranged his blankets and brought an extra pillow, saying it would be well for him to sleep with his head propped. The miner rasped out his thanks, and lay back to sleep again. His breathing sounded much clearer and his coughing had ceased.
Blanca carried the cup back to the table and sat again by the fire. “You have a different way of healing than my mother taught me, when she would care for our neighbors with her great love. Your way employs a fearful lot of potions and herbs and such, so that I do not know how you keep them straight. And yet there does seem some benefit in your way.”
“There is benefit in both ways. Your mother no doubt helped many with her love. But the herbs have their own wisdom to cure. Always, child, everything good comes with a cost. The miners grow sick because of their work, yet the silver they bring forth from the mountains makes lovely things like your locket. And now I must go back and cure your aunt who spreads rumors about me, and hope her gratitude will clear my name. May I take some foxglove?”
Stepmother started to go, but stopped and pulled an apple from her cloak. “Ah, I almost forgot. I made this for you.”
Blanca took the apple, which looked redder and brighter than any usual apple. “What is it?”
“I have put a little bit of a love potion in there. Try it, if you would like a little new magic to replace the old. But it is a strong potion, and can be poison if you use too much. Take only one bite, and if that does not work take two the next day, and so forth. Be careful. And now I really must go.”
They said their good-byes and Blanca waved her off. After stepmother had run off down the path, Blanca tried to find some of her animal friends, but they were nowhere she could see. It grieved her that they might never come back to her, but that would not matter so much if she might know the good Prince. In the cottage, she picked up her old dress and went into her little pantry to try to put it on, but Stepmother was right -- no matter how much she let it out, it hadn't enough fabric. Instead, she tugged the bird dress on. When she went out she found Tuesday sleeping soundly, so she took the apple out onto the back porch above the stream. The fruit looked fine and smelled very sweet, and she felt almost sure the Prince was nearby. So she took a bite.
It was wonderful. She closed her eyes and sucked in its miraculous sweetness. She waited a few minutes, peering between the trees, but the Prince did not come. She took another bite and chewed slowly, so that the wonderful juices stayed in her throat as long as she could keep them. It was so good that she had to take one more bite. Then she did not feel so well, and yet she must have more. As strongly as she'd felt she must avoid Prince Terrán before, now she needed to draw him to her.
After the sixth bite she did not feel well at all. She had to lie down, right there on the porch. Blanca's eyes remained open and she did not sleep; all she could do was lie still in a glassy stupor. That was how Tuesday eventually found her. She heard his cries of alarm, heard him mutter to himself as he hovered and wrung his hands. He brought a blanket but knew not what else to do. When the others came home Blanca lay there still, stiff, eyes half open and half shut, unable to speak or move.
“We ought get her inside to her bed, think ye not?”
“Nay, nay, I tried and it's impossible to move her, for her body has gone stiff and she's wedged onto this little porch. I was afraid to hurt her in the trying.”
“What'll we do, what'll we do?”
“Eh, we can't just leave her out in the weather like this!”
At last they fashioned some winter windows into a glass covering to put over her, to keep the weather off. They left the back door open so that they could keep an eye on her. But there wasn't much else they could do. Night passed. The next day six of them went off to the mines, leaving Sunday to watch over her. Blanca dozed and woke fitfully, able to take only shallow breaths. Her glassy eyes kept a dim watch on the branches and birds and clouds overhead.
At midday she still slept, until talking woke her. Sunday's gruff voice spoke first, but the other was like music to her.
As they came closer, she heard what Sunday was saying. “Yes, Prince Terrán, she be sick but I can show you where she lies sleeping. That's a mighty fine dress you say you found in the stream there, but I never seen our Blanca with such, no sir. ”
“Yet when I found this dress downstream, as if by magic my heart burned, and I did see her face in my mind's eye.”
“Looking for a way to make her acquaintance then, are ye?”
“I, uh--” They had reached the doorway, and there he was. Prince Terrán stood above her, dark eyes wide and mouth open. She looked at him, speechless, from the glass coffin; he was so handsome, so noble, she felt she could never speak to him. Yet his elegant riding suit looked rumpled as if he had slept in it.
She forced her eyes to open wide and tried to move her lips. He stared, the expression on his face changing almost as if he understood what she was trying to say. He knelt and pushed the glass covering away. "Speak, fairest,” he whispered.
She wanted him to touch her so badly, she tried to use her eyes to draw him close. Slowly it worked; first he pushed the dark curls away from her eyes, then put his hand on hers. With her eyes she spoke and spoke, everything she had been afraid to say before. He touched her chin, tipping it up a little in spite of the stiffness that locked her body. He put his soft lips to her forehead, and then to her own lips.
Sunday objected heavily, but Blanca barely heard him and Prince Terrán did not seem to notice either. I can talk to him, she thought. This man is truly a new magic for me, because I can talk to him without words. Though we are strangers, yet there is an understanding between us, an understanding older than either of us. She tried to send him another message.
In response, he picked up the blue dress. The silk, stiff and a little ragged after what it had been through, sighed under his touch. He moved his hand around until he found what he was looking for. Blanca's stiff lips cracked into the shadow of a smile when he pulled out the silver locket.
He cradled her head with one hand and lifted it just enough to slide the chain over with the other hand. As soon as he did, Blanca was able to breathe again. He placed a gentle hand behind her shoulders to lift her. Her waist bent and her shoulders came up, face to face with him, then twisted to the railing in time to lose her stomach into the fast-moving water. After that she felt almost herself again.
He carried her into the house. Though her waist and back still ached, she rounded herself into his arms. Sunday remained silent now, as if awed by what passed between them. He brought a soft chair to the fire for Blanca, then went to the mine to share the news with the others.
Blanca and Prince Terrán talked into the night about all sorts of things, just as if they had known each other for all eternity.
* * *
They were married after three turns of the moon -- for though the kingdom awaited the festivities eagerly, Blanca insisted on waiting until Father came home. Terrán bought out the silver mine and hired young men to work it, and the miners who had taken Blanca in came to learn silversmithing. There were a few carefree years, and then children came, seven of them, named after the days of the week. As the king grew old, Terrán's duties in governing increased.
When she had time, Blanca accompanied her Stepmother on her rounds. Though it was Stepmother who knew the ways of herbs, Blanca found she had some skill in nursing, to which she brought great love. And on some occasions, when neither herbs nor love sufficed, the silver locket worked its magic.