The girl sang as she plaited her hair. She sat too far away for Conrad to hear her words, though he imagined they boasted of stolen kisses and everlasting love. Quite a picture she made, singing and braiding her hair in a meadow where early yarrow and arnica bloomed. When she tucked that glorious golden hair beneath a cap, she robbed the day of some of its brightness.
It was the seventh day since the girl had first appeared in this meadow. Conrad had offered the girl a blanket and a corner of his barn. He’d hoped she might prove useful, but she did nothing more than follow him around as he worked. At least she didn’t comment when the milk pail slipped from his gnarled grasp. And she sat quietly during his frequent breaks.
Conrad had known who the girl was from the moment he saw her. The face was the same and so was the bearing, but it was the way she’d tucked her hair beneath a cap that took him back. He’d never forgotten his days as the goose boy, accompanied by a useless girl who became a princess and then a queen.
Without Conrad’s help, the queen would have wandered with the geese all her days. The king’s gift of this small farm was meant as a reward when a strand of the goose girl’s hair would have been enough. He might have hated the girl who became a princess and then a queen, but her glimmering, shimmering hair had spoken to him from the first. A strand was all he’d wanted. A thing of no value. But Conrad wasn’t stupid. He’d seen the look in the goose girl’s eyes when the king bestowed his gift. She wanted the boy gone, and with him any memory of the days when she’d lost everything she’d ever known.
The farm was isolated. Travelers rarely passed by Conrad’s door, nestled as it was against the curve of a mountain. The meadows yielded sweet milk from his cow and the lambs munched happily on edelweiss when they could find it, but Conrad never stopped yearning for the bustle of the castle. He’d had endless moments to wonder what his life would have been if he hadn’t given up his geese. Perhaps he’d have a child of his own who’d dream in a meadow while plaiting her hair.
The sun dipped low in the sky. Conrad called the girl to supper.
The girl pushed away her dish of dampfnudel and cabbage. She didn’t complain, but Conrad knew she wished for the meat and potatoes they served at court. She had the look of girl who became princess and then queen. A girl like that would yearn for only the finest of things.
Conrad wasn’t a stupid man; he was deliberate and many thought those were the same thing. Few travelers came to his door, but those that did brought news. The queen bestowed a knighthood on the man who brewed her ale. She found a highborn wife for the son of her falconer. Favor after favor she bestowed, but only Conrad had been banished.
The girl slipped out of the cottage while Conrad tidied the small room. Again she’d left him alone with his work. He wished she’d eaten her supper and the valerian root he’d added to it. Then he could be sure that her slumber would be deep.
Night fell before Conrad finished the last of his chores. The moon peeked over the nearest mountain, a dark shape against the glitter and swirl of stars. Conrad sank down onto his stoop and watched the moon rise. He wouldn’t rush what he had to do.
It was the seventh day of the seventh month and the girl had been in his home for seven nights. He thought he knew why.
Eventually, Conrad rose. He reentered his cabin and took up the pair of scissors that hung on the wall. Ever so quietly, he crossed the dooryard to the barn. The door eased open with nary a whisper. Oiling its hinges had been the project of the morning. For once, Conrad was grateful not to have his geese any longer. They would have woken the slumbering cow and alerted the girl to his presence.
Conrad paused beside the girl’s pallet. He imagined she dreamt of silken gowns and balls that lasted until dawn. Her hair glinted in the moonlight, taunting him with its golden glow. If the queen had let him have a single strand as he’d asked, everything might have been different. He might have lived the life he’d wanted. He leaned down and grabbed the girl’s braid.
The scissors were sharp and made short work of the braid. The girl sat up as soon as Conrad snipped the last strand from her head. She ran a hand through her ragged hair and sighed, “Now we shall both have the lives we dreamt of.”
Conrad looked down. The braid had turned to gossamer strands of gold in his hand.
The girl stood. “You asked my grandmother for a few strands of her hair. She denied you because she believed her hair was the source of her salvation. Perhaps it was. For me, it’s a shackle, binding me to a life I do not want.
“You think I dream of boys and crowns. I do not. I dream of a simple life full of honest work. I don’t want to endure another a dress fitting or decide if a certain lady should be seated above or below the salt.”
Somewhere outside the barn, a bird trilled. The tangy scent of hay rose on a breeze that wafted through the open window. The moonlight shifted again, and Conrad saw that the girl’s golden hair had turned a pale yellow.
“I want to be free,” the girl pressed. “Teach me how to live on this farm. And once that is done, you can take the gold in your hand and build the life you choose.”
Conrad was not stupid. Some things weren’t meant to be understood and some things didn’t require deliberation.
“All right,” he said. “We’ll start tomorrow.”
Michelle Hanley is inspired by her family, fairy tales, and those odd blurbs on news sites that can’t possibly be true stories. When she isn’t writing, you can find her on a paddleboard, fly fishing, gardening, or reading. She was awarded Honorable Mention in YeahWrite Super Challenge #13 and the Writers Weekly Fall 2020 Short Story Contest. Look for her other work in Dread Naught but Time, MOJO, and at www.ftpdblog.wordpress.com.
Artwork: Albert Ankler, “Girl Braiding Her Hair,” 1887.