If faeries have no pity, it is because you humans have made us that way. If faerie bargains have become wicked and insidious things, it’s your doing. There was nothing wrong with the bargain I made. There was everything wrong with the miller’s daughter.
When I first saw her, the miller’s daughter wasn’t even trying. She was sitting in the very center of the tower, a flake of straw from the bales around her in her lap, her light green dress spread around her. Her hair, the color of grass dead in the autumn, hung around her shoulders as she sobbed unselfconsciously. Well, of course unselfconsciously. She thought she was alone.
She reminded me of the little hill fey back where I’d come from, with her sloping shoulders and long neck and fingers. I suppose that was why I first felt pity for her. Or maybe the way she sobbed. Like a child, though she hadn’t been one for many years.
When I made myself known, she flinched and cried out, whether from my sudden arrival or from my physical appearance, I’m not sure. I am not comely like the court faeries. I am made from dirt, and though I could be lovely, I suppose, I would rather save my beauty for the things I make.
“Where did you come from?” the girl said. She hurried to scrub her tears from her face, though it didn’t matter. They’d already made her ugly and red-eyed and snuffy-nosed. She discreetly wiped her nose on her sleeve.
“The straw,” I said, which was partially true.
“Who are you? Are you one of the king’s men?”
I said, “I could help you.”
She laughed, then, not a cruel laugh, but a hollow, hopeless one. And she took the flake of straw and tossed it into the air, making pieces of straw and motes of dust flutter around her. “No one can help me. I’m going to die, because my father cannot tell the truth to save his life. Or mine.”
I smiled. Truth was something I was good at. “But I can.”
The miller’s daughter looked suspicious, like only someone who has been used badly can. “What do you want in return?”
I hadn’t considered that yet. That’s what pity does to you, makes you weak. I quickly made something up. “Your — your ring. It’s gold, isn’t it? I’ll need it to show the straw what to be.”
She still didn’t trust me. She said, “So that means that I would have to give you the ring before I knew whether or not you could actually accomplish such a thing.”
“Indeed,” I said. “But it won’t do for your fingers to look pretty once you’ve lost your head anyway.”
This was speaking her language. She slid the ring from her finger as if it were red-hot and dropped it into my palm from a great distance as if my hand, too, were anathema.
I drew a single piece of straw through the ring while singing a song about the dirt I came from, and it appeared on the other side shining and new.
Hope made the miller’s daughter’s face beautiful.
“That song,” she said, “It’s so lovely.”
I just smiled, because I knew it was. That was what I did.
Of course, the next day the king’s men were well-pleased with the miller’s daughter, but it was not enough. I had not learned then that it was never enough. She was to make straw into gold for another day if she was to live.
Again, the weeping, but not for as long this time. The afternoon sun was still shining brightly through the high windows in the tower, making long paths of golden light, by the time she finished. After she had wiped her eyes, she called, “Brown Man? Where are you? I cannot call your name, for I don’t know it. But oh, please, Brown Man, if you are listening, oh please take pity on me again.”
So I reemerged from the fresh load of straw, and again she flinched, but not as badly as the day before.
“You are still here?” I asked, as if I knew nothing. “I would have thought you’d be back in your village by now.”
The miller’s daughter was less despairing and more indignant now. “They lied to me. They told me I would go free today if I did as they asked, and instead, they have set me to it another day. I cannot do it. It is only your cunning that kept me alive today.”
I shrugged at the flattery; it was, after all, the truth.
“Please say you will help me again,” she begged. “What can I give you in return?”
Again the bargain, and again I had to think quickly on what to ask for. “Your — necklace. Because it is precious to you and that will teach the straw the art of being loved.”
She bit her lip and nodded. “That is fair.” Drawing the clasp around to the front, her fingers fumbled with it but could not unfasten it. She cast her eyes to me up to me and so I stood in front of her and reached for the clasp.
Again she flinched, this time as my coarse fingers touched the skin beneath the necklace as I lifted it toward my face. In a moment I had it free of her and I stepped back. She opened her eyes as I did.
There was something less guarded in her expression as I slid the necklace over one of the bales, letting it trail behind my fingers like a snake, and I sang to the straw again about who I was; about the dirt and wiping it from my face as I stepped into the light.
And this time the miller’s daughter’s face was delighted, and it was me she was looking at instead of the newly golden bale. “When you sing, I cannot think of what you look like,” she said, and as soon as she had said it, she clapped her hand over her mouth.
“It’s all right,” I said. “It is the truth, and that’s something I love very much.”
Well into the night we worked the straw, her pulling apart the bales so that I could sing to them. It was well past midnight before the floor was groaning with the new weight. The mounds of new gold cast dull warm patterns across us, lit only by the single lantern. In this light, it was harder to see what was outside, and so we lay together, the miller’s daughter and I, because my kisses were lovely if you could not see my lips.
# # #
She did not cry at all on the third day when they told her again she could not go free. They told her that if she turned the straw to gold a third and final time, she would be the king’s wife, and she would live the rest of her days in luxury, with even her father kneeling to her as she passed.
She did not cry. She stood with her arms crossed tightly across her chest and she stared at the new bales of straw that filled the tower. Finally, she whispered, “Brown Man, are you there?”
And I emerged again from the straw, and again she flinched at the sight of me. This time I did not wait for her to ask. I put my palm on her belly and said, “I would have your first-born.” I had seen her amongst the straw; I knew the miller’s daughter would be at home in my home in the earth. I looked at her.
In the daylight, she could not look at me. “Yes,” she said.
I could hear that it was not the truth.
But you know that I spun the gold for her anyway. I used all of the straw, and the rest of my pity.
Author’s Note: My contribution to the prompt of Rumpelstiltskin. I always thought the miller’s daughter got off easy, letting him do her homework.
Image courtesy: phil h.