I stood in the grass under the shadow of the gangling stone gray tower. The sun blinded my eyes as I stared up to the sky, waiting for the thick rope of kinky hair to unravel and thump against the side of the tower, my ladder.
“Ranaé,” I called, my voice barely above a whisper. I knew she would hear me. The day was still. The only sound to cut the silence was the rustling of the long blades of grass and the solitary bird couple, in love, singing to each other on the tree a few feet away. The only thing Ranaé had to occupy her time was Aurora, the golden-haired cat, some crochet needles and a few bundles of golden yarn. I was trying to teach her how to make a blanket, for the cold season. She hated it. She used the yarn to make accessories for her hair.
The braid fell out of the tower and I used the stirrups she created in her braid to climb up and through the window. With my thirty-ninth birthday around the corner, hoisting myself through the window seemed to be getting harder by the day. With my poor upper body strength, Ranaé often had to help me. We both grunted with effort, and finally, I was home. The room was small, round, and cool. The walls were entirely made of stone, and the furniture was simple. The only piece of art adorning the walls was a portrait Ranaé drew of me when she was 14 and had taken up portraiture for a month or two. It was lovely, but strangely, at the same time it was also hideous, so I framed it.
“The stirrups were an excellent touch.”
Ranaé beamed, and I reveled in the sunshine of her smile. She seemed a little more radiant than usual today. She had crafted a new hair accessory. It was a golden headband that wrapped around the crown of her head in an intricate braiding pattern I had never seen before. I was amazed. It was beautiful, and so was she.
Moving to the corner of the room that we used as our kitchen, she let out a sigh of relief and immediately opened the brown paper sack I had set on the small wooden table and began to unpack the groceries. She loved to cook, and I knew that her favorite part of the day was discovering the ingredients I’d bring home from the market for her. It was like a game for us. I would bring her several different ingredients and see how she could whip something up. The rule was that she had to use every ingredient. I was always amazed at how she managed to make the most unlikely dishes out of simple things. Today I brought her a small chicken, beets, other various vegetables, and a single lemon. I wanted to see what she could do.
“What did you do today, Mama?” Her voice was like a spoon tinkering on glass. I watched her shuffling around the kitchen and wondered how I could have a part in creating such a beautiful young woman.
I removed my shoes and closed my eyes, letting the stress of the day loose with a long, rattling breath. “I made a few potions. Broke a spell for some frog prince from Thanisburry. Made a potion for a red-faced girl who wanted her boyfriend to stay in love with her forever. She paid a pretty penny. Came all the way from the King’s court.”
Ranaé sighed a wistful sigh as she coated the flat pan with butter. “Did it work?”
I opened one eye. “Well of course it worked. My potions never fail. She’s foolish, though. Men are fickle. You shouldn’t have to give someone a potion to fall in love with you. They should just do it.” I paused. “And even when they do, sometimes they fall out of love and there’s nothing you can do about it. They just leave. And that’s that. No potion to fix that.”
Ranaé looked over my shoulder at the threadbare tunic hanging on a nail next to our bed. It had been her father’s. She never would let me throw it out.
“I’m going to be with someone who I will never fall out of love with.”
“That’s silly, Naé. Men lie. They tell you they won’t ever fall out of love with you, and then, guess what?”
“They fall out of love with you,” Naé said in a dispassionate tone.
“Don’t ever believe them. That’s what got us stuck in this tower. Depending on a man. That’s why I have to leave you alone for most of the day, and that’s why we can’t move into the village. If you want to be stressed out, there are easier ways.”
I looked around the perfectly round room, at the small bed that we shared. We had no money to build a house or rent a room like the other villagers, so we were stuck living in the abandoned tower on the outskirts of town that nobody wanted. We were squatters, all because I had fallen in love with a man who abandoned me, emotionally and financially. I rubbed my temples in memory.
Ranaé set a plate of food in front of me. “Not all men will abandon, Mama. There are good women, and bad women. Good men, and bad men. Good men, good women. Isn’t that true?”
I harrumphed. “Maybe, but no man will ever be as good as your Mama. Now let’s eat.”
She made lemon butter chicken with caramelized onions, floating on a molehill of rice. It was delicious, as always.
The next day at the market, I bought a large halibut for Ranaé to make with red onions and potatoes, her favorite vegetables. The stupid young honorable who bought the love potion had no come for another potion, this time to reverse the effects. She wailed that her husband wouldn’t give her any privacy, and she wanted something that was in between — not the apathy she usually endured, but not the obsequious fawning slave to love he had become, either. I charged her double for her stupidity, and with the shiny coins cut straight from the King’s palace, I decided to treat myself to a half-day and head home early to spend time with Ranaé. I often felt guilty for leaving her to her own devices. She was 18, and she was going to be old enough to work soon. I was going to have to let her go soon.
With my killing, I was able to buy a gold-plated bracelet for Ranaé, which I knew she would love. After my basket was full with our dinner and a snapper for Aurora, I headed home. When I got to the clearing, I stopped and nearly dropped my basket. There was a tall, dark-haired stranger standing at the bottom of the tower, looking upward. He had a silky white horse tied to a tree, and a long dagger in a sheath at his belt.
He bellowed up at the tower. “Ranaé, let down your hair.”
Ranaé stuck her head out of the window. She was beaming in a way I had never seen before. She let down her hair, and the stranger climbed into our home. I left my basket at the base of the nearest tree, my heartbeat in my fingertips, turned around briskly and began a steady jog back to my shop. I was going to make a potion he would never forget.
When I returned to the tower, I was well prepared. I had a powder potion that would make his head spin, make him disoriented, and give him flu-like symptoms for at least three days so I could teach him a lesson. It would temporarily immobilize all of his muscles, so that he would be stuck in the tower to answer my questions, because he wouldn’t have the strength to climb down. I also grudgingly rustled up an antidote that would alleviate and cease symptoms, without really knowing if I intended to use it. I used a grappling hook and rope so as not to tip them off, and with the paper bag of powder in hand, I slowly scaled the tower. When I was right under the window, I pushed myself up with the last bit of strength I had, and jumped into the room with a shout.
“What are you doing in my house?” My chest heaved, a dangerous combination of fury and exertion.
They were sitting on the bed, Aurora between them, and the man looked startled, embarrassed, and slightly amused. Ranaé was wide-eyed and open-mouthed, turning her head wildly between the two of us. Her eyes did not know where to rest, and eventually she settled for the floor. She looked as if she was about to go into cardiac arrest.
“Mama, I — ”
“Ma’am, I’ve come to court your daughter.” Upon closer inspection of his clothing, I noticed the king’s insignia. A member of the royal family. I scoffed.
“You have no right to come into our home; you didn’t ask to court her. You just did it. You think because I’m an old, poor lady, that you don’t have to ask? You think that because you’re a man, you can just take what you want, and so help everyone else?” Before he could respond, I took a generous pinch of the powder from my cloak and dashed it in his face. Almost immediately, he slumped over, losing control of his body.
Ranaé screamed. “Mama, he didn’t mean any harm! I let him in! Stop, reverse this! ” She didn’t show a modicum of concern for the disrespect that her suitor had brought on me. She didn’t care that I was hurt by her dishonesty. I wondered how long this had been going on. I didn’t care if he was the miller’s son or the merchant’s son or the King himself. I would not be disrespected by a man, and neither would she. Over my dead body.
Ranaé grabbed him by the arms, still begging me to reverse the curse, and dragged him over to the window.
“What are you doing? Where are you going?” I screamed. Aurora was meowing loudly. She had ingested some of the powder.
Ranaé threw her rope of hair out of the window, and the man, still conscious, weakly slid down. She grunted with effort as she held the rope of hair and struggled not to break her neck under the weight.
I scurried over to the window. “How dare you, Ranaé? How long have you been lying to me?”
She did not answer, instead staring down at the prince with a fretful expression, whose alabaster horse had buried his head in the dirt so that he could mount. When she finally spoke, her voice was soft and tinkly as ever.
“I’m in love, Mama. We’ve been married. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. He’s the King’s son. I’m so sorry, Mama. I knew how you would take it.” When she mentioned that he was royalty, her voice lowered to a reverent hush, and a rapidly growing frost enveloped my body.
I didn’t know what to say to her. Before I could gather the words, she had unraveled her rope of hair out and thrown it out the window to form protection for her on her way down. She jumped without hesitation, and I yelped at the thump her body made when she hit the cushion of hair. It was a wonder she didn’t break anything other than my heart. I dashed to the window and gripped the edge. “You little idiot! Do you want to break something?”
She looked up at me from the ground before mounting the horse in front of the prince and holding on tightly to the reins. “I’ll be back for you Mama,” she called. “But I need to get him help, if you won’t. I’ll be back for you once we get this cleared up at the castle.”
I looked down at my daughter, who was using her first true moments of freedom to cater to the son of the King. It was as if I had taught her nothing. A sickening feeling began to spread over me, starting in the deepest pit of my stomach, ending in my fingertips with an acrid tingle. I fought against waves of nausea and set a palm against the cool stone wall, steadying myself. The sight of her on horseback, slipping her bare feet into the stirrups with ease, made me feel sick. This couldn’t be the first time she had left the tower. My mind raced, searching for clues in things she had done. What else didn’t I know?
I leaned out the window and utilized my iciest tone. “Don’t ever come back here.”
Ranaé’s face fell, and yet her eyes were resolute. I retreated from the window, my heart racing. I sat on the cot next to Aurora, who was trying without fail to stand up and jump off the bed. The smell of our halibut dinner filled the room, sending another tsunami of nausea through my stomach. I thought she might call up to me again, so I stayed still, willing my shaking hands to cease.
I listened and waited, and after a minute of resounding silence, Ranaé urged the horse on, and they were gone. I listened until I couldn’t hear the sound of horse’s hooves anymore. A week later, I scaled the tower for the last time and found that Aurora, long since back to normal, had vanished. Seven years later, I was told that my daughter had been given the Queen’s crown on Coronation Day, but I never laid eyes on her again.