Rumpelstiltskin meets Groundhog Day, with a twist.
The part at the end, when I tear myself in half, is the worst. But it’s dramatic, and everyone seems to like it. Besides, I’ve perfected the move.
Mind you, I don’t actually tear myself in half. That would hurt. When I stomp my foot, much like a toddler, it opens a passageway to another forest, another miller’s daughter, another king intent on fortune.
I’m not sure why I slip through this passageway, only that I do. I’m not sure how it happens, only that it does. I leave one life for another, each familiar, but distinct. I’ve done this for so many years that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a life of my own.
The forest around me is still. I breathe in dry leaves. My limbs feel sluggish, my head even more so. When the sky stops spinning, I’ll need to bolt. I might already be too late. Right now, the hangman may be tightening the noose around the neck of the miller’s daughter. That’s happened more times than I care to count.
It’s hard to save someone mid-execution.
I inhale a steadying breath and push from the forest floor only to careen into the first oak I see. Its bark scrapes my cheek, but the thick trunk stops my fall. My head spins. I clutch the tree like a lovesick girl and wait.
When I merely see double, I head for the village.
From a farmer’s clothesline, I procure a shirt with flapping tails and a tattered overcoat. I jam an abandoned straw hat on my head. The oversized clothes make me appear old, shrunken.
As I leave, a billy goat bleats a reprimand at me.
Stalls line the village square with everything from rosy apples to funnel cakes sizzling in oil. Baskets bump my hips and arms as people hurry past. I can’t move. I am a hollow thing, starved, not just for food, but a real meal, a real bed, a real home.
A real life.
When did it all change? When did I change? A curse, perhaps. Or I bargained with the wrong crone. Or perhaps I did nothing, and it’s simply my fate to watch life from the outside.
I shake myself—the miller’s daughter. I must find her.
The tavern. I always start my search there. Nine times out of ten, that’s where I’ll find her worthless father.
Sometimes he’s weeping, it’s true. Sometimes he isn’t even at the tavern, but at home, wringing his hands and concocting foolish rescue plans. Most of the time?
He’s drinking, on credit.
That’s where he is today, surrounded by ne’er-do-wells, a barmaid on his knee. But if he’s here, if he’s drinking, it means his daughter is confronting a room full of straw.
I must wait until dark. Even then, obstacles line my path: palace guards, winding corridors, and any number of locked doors.
But people are creatures of habit and convenience. I’ve crept inside countless castles, pried open dozens of locks, procured keys hanging from the same hook, in the same spot, in nearly identical guardrooms a hundred times over. Tonight is no exception, and I tie the keys to a bit of rope that I loop around my waist.
On the other hand, the miller’s daughter is unpredictable. Sometimes she’s crying. Sometimes she’s resigned or angry. Sometimes she’s both and refuses my help.
It’s better now that I obscure my face, hide my true form. Those first times? My appearance was so shocking that no amount of reasoning could calm her down. Guards poured into the room, followed by the king himself. And I found myself slipping through that passageway far earlier than I had planned.
So it’s with caution that I ease open the door. The miller’s daughter stands in the center of the room, eyes dry, gaze contemplating the truly mammoth pile of straw. This king must be extraordinarily greedy. When she catches sight of me, she nods as if she’s been expecting her supernatural helper—and I’m late.
“The king wants me to spin this straw into gold.” She casts an almost regal hand toward the towering pile.
“That’s quite a task,” I reply. “One I’m well suited for. I could help you.”
She raises an eyebrow. “For a price?”
I execute a low bow. “But of course.”
She tugs a ring from her finger. “Will this do?”
I barely glance at it, because, yes, of course, it will. People are wary of getting something for nothing. I don’t need the ring, can’t take it with me when I travel to yet another miller’s daughter and her predicament, but it always makes this part go easier.
“Rest, my child,” I say, indicating a wool blanket in one corner. “You will wake to find this room filled with gold.”
The miller’s daughter lifts the hem of her skirt and retreats, settling in, her back to the room. She is unusually compliant. I pause, taste the air, breathe in the dry, scratchy scent of hay. The room is as it always is, and yet, I hesitate. But only for a moment. There’s no time to waste.
I return to the farm and lead the billy goat and several of his companions into the room filled with straw. No one ever questions an old peasant herding goats, not even in the middle of the night. I set them to work, and they’ll gladly eat their fill.
It’s not like I can spin straw into gold. That’s ridiculous.
The keys to the kingdom jangle at my side—quite literally—including those that unlock the royal coffers. Rarely do I find them empty.
The greedier the king, the more gold he already has.
This king’s treasure room glows. I pick my way through a maze of coins and jewels, of gold buried beneath more gold, a vast amount to last a hundred lifetimes. I unearth the ancient treasures, the acquisitions long forgotten.
It takes all night to lug enough gold to replace the straw. It always does. By morning, I’m covered in the ancestral greed and grime of this current king. As recompense, before I leave, I slip enough coins into my overcoat pocket to see me through the inevitable wedding and birth of the first child.
Predictably, I receive the necklace for my second night’s efforts, and by the third night, I’m floating with relief. It was so easy this time. All I need to do is extract the promise of her first-born, fill the room with gold, and take a well-deserved rest before my final performance.
I bound into the room, but skid to a stop at her outstretched hand.
“You’re not needed here,” she says.
“But…” I survey the mountain of straw that towers over us—bale upon bale stacked precariously until I’m certain the entire mound will tip over and crush us both.
“If I spin this straw into gold, the king says he’ll marry me, and if I don’t, he will kill me.”
“He’ll keep his word,” At least, he always has—so far. “He’ll marry you.”
“I would marry a man who has thrice threaten to execute me simply because I cannot perform the impossible?”
She shakes her head so hard, her glossy black braid comes undone. Her hair tumbles free. On reflex, I clutch the hat closer to my scalp.
“No, I don’t wish to marry such a man, not even to save my life.” She leans forward as if to peer at me. I shrink further into my coat. “You’ve been more than kind, but your services are no longer needed.”
Stunned, I open my mouth, but no words come out. I grope in my pockets and offer up the ring and the necklace.
“Those are yours,” she says. “They belong to you.”
I try all night long, but she won’t budge. With the first rays of dawn, I leave the room, my eyes prickly and raw from hay and sorrow.
I attend the execution. I owe her that. Upon the scaffold, in the village square, the hangman is shrouded; she is not. Her black braid glows in the morning light, and she surveys the gathering crowd with what looks like pity rather than fear, her eyes sharp and alert.
She scans each newcomer. At first, I think she’s searching for her father. When her gaze touches mine, the miller’s daughter smiles, and I realize she’s been looking for me. My stomach clenches, and I can’t glance away.
The hangman places the noose around her neck.
With her gaze still locked on mine, the miller’s daughter winks.
The hangman releases the trap door. The crowd gasps.
But she doesn’t hang. Her neck doesn’t snap. Beneath her, the cobblestones shimmer. The rope unravels, and she slips through an all too familiar passageway.
I’m not sure how it happens, only that it does.
The village square erupts in chaos, crying and wailing and shouts of witchcraft. My heart pounds so hard it fills my throat. I am frozen in place, hollowed out.
I remain there long after the crowd disperses, and the guards dismantle the scaffold. I stay for so long that the bustle returns, and the stalls reopen. Warm spice and the scent of ale dull the edges of my earlier terror.
It’s only then I pull the hat from my head. My braid tumbles to my shoulder, glossy and black, a mirror image of the miller’s daughter. I stare up at the space where the scaffolding stood.
Did she know from the start?
I brush my foot against the cobblestone. If I stamp hard enough, will I, too, vanish, leave as she did, as I’ve always done in the past?
I decide not to try.
Instead, I pull the ring and necklace from my pocket.
Those are yours. They belong to you.
It’s been ages since I felt the weight of the chain around my neck, but I secure it now and slip on the ring.
I am the miller’s daughter. I cast a glance over my shoulder toward the tavern but decide not to bother with this world’s version of my father.
After all, I have a pocketful of coin. The possibilities of what that might buy loom large: a real meal, a real bed, a real home.
I turn toward the stall, the one with the funnel cakes sizzling in oil, and decide to start there.
Rumpelstiltskin is another one of those fairy tales that I think deserve a retelling (or two).