In a week of cold rain, I’ve been trying to focus at work by burning a woodsmoke-scented candle and listening to deep-focus YouTube playlists, Angelina Stanford’s “How to Read Fairy Tales” video course, and an audiobook of Elizabeth Grierson’s “The Scottish Fairy Book.” Between this listening material and my technical writing job, my work hours are full of cloud networking jargon and Scots Gaelic names, fantastic quests and engineering meetings. Somehow, this winter has impressed on me the goodness of the multiple worlds I inhabit – business and the arts, software and fantasy – and the beauty at their points of intersection.
The next contribution to the Winter Eyrie project is a short story by Loren Warnemuende. Loren introduced me to the “How to Read Fairy Tales” course and many other great resources, and we share a love for fairy tales and fairy tale retellings. Her thoughtful, vivid prose and beautifully-drawn characters take the imagery and symbolism of fairy tales like this one and draw out fantastic colors, textures, and layers. Enjoy!
Through the Window
By Loren G. Warnemuende
There is a truth outside of me, outside of what I know.
I sensed this, I think, even as a child. I couldn’t quite believe Mother when she told me there was nothing beyond the forest surrounding my eyrie.
“But where do you go when you leave each night?” I asked her.
“Into the woods, my bird. All that we need is there.”
She brought me many beautiful things that seemed impossible to grow amidst those dim, dark trees—crimson strawberries, cadmium peaches, golden grain. And the overarching sky was so great and blue, and the horizon so far, and the birds who came to my high window seemed to sing of sunlit spaces. All these things were so different from the tangles of rose briars at the foot of my tower, with their black thorns, and the shadowed-red of the blossoms, and the gray stone of the high walls.
Mind you, my room was snug. Mother saw to that. I see now that she provided for me, but I also know she gave me only what my body needed in order to grow and a fraction of the beauty and wisdom that my mind craved. I longed for something more, something beyond the cold stone walls that surrounded me. In winters I wrapped my golden hair about me, burrowed under heavy furs, and dreamt of the sun. In the summer, I was still chilled.
“Might I go with you to get food?” I dared ask Mother once.
She raised her brows. “Haven’t I brought what you wanted?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“It would break my heart if something harmed you out there, my bird. And besides, how would we climb back up if you came down with me, bringing your braids with you?”
She silenced me with that, but not because her argument was flawless. Rather she gave me a window through which I could see that her words were false, for I knew my hair had not always been long enough for her to climb.
I did not know how to change things. Each day, all I could do was wait for Mother to bring some small taste of that world I couldn’t see. I spun the flax she brought, I sang, and I hoped for something I could not put words to. And then my dear one came and gave me the words.
I suppose I should have been frightened when he first appeared. I heard Mother call, and I wondered what had angered her, for her voice grumbled low like the times she’d lost her temper with me. When I cast down my braids for her to climb, her weight pulled my head and I puzzled over what heavy load she carried. But then a face appeared over the window ledge and it was not her! How I stared! And the person stared too, eyes blue as the evening sky.
“Who are you?” we asked at the same time.
And we laughed with joy for saying the same simple words we both understood.
My dear one was a man, he said, the son of a king. He had to explain much to me before I grasped his meaning, but as he spoke I felt warmth enter my heart and fill my tower, for he spoke of what I had suspected—of wide spaces and people like us who walked together, and spoke, and loved.
I knew I could not tell Mother about him–I feared her anger if she saw her lie had failed–but I admit it was hard to hide the truth. My walls pressed in each day until he came again, bringing stories of life and light with him. When he was there, the walls melted, and my eyrie was a safe nest. We spoke of the future, and he told me about marriage, the eternal pledge between a man and a woman, and he asked me to be his.
“I want to be yours,” I told my dear one. “But how can it be forever?”
For I knew now that I could not exist if I had not had a father, and I wondered why Mother had never spoken of him.
“As long as there is life in either of us,” my dear one said, “I will be yours.”
I understood then what death was, but I knew I could risk it, and I pledged myself to my dear one.
We laid our plans, and set the day for when my dear one would take me to his kingdom. He brought me silk so I could weave a ladder to give me a way to escape. We thought we were careful with our secret, but we were young, and there were things we did not understand. Truth has a way of showing, and the day it did my two worlds collided.
“Who is he?” Mother hissed, her voice cold and low as she glared at me. “What have you done?”
I trembled. I did not see how she knew. But I lifted my chin and spoke the truth.
“He is my husband,” I said.
She snatched my braids, yanking my head, and with one swift move she pulled out a knife and sheared my glory from my head. Then she tied my poor shorn braids to the window, and pulled me out after her to climb down, barely avoiding the briars at the bottom of my tower. She marched me, long and relentlessly, through the dark of the forest and finally into a wasteland where she cast me down. The fierce sun seared my eyes and my tears scalded my cheeks.
“I gave you everything, but you are no longer my responsibility,” she said. “Let’s see how strong your husband’s love is.”
She turned away.
“Mother!” I cried.
She cast one scorching glance back at me. “I was never your mother,” she said, and she vanished into the woods.
I tried to follow, but I didn’t know the way. At last I decided I must wait for my dear one, and while I waited, I strove to make a new home, a better haven. I found a clear brook flowing down from a high hill. Beside it grew a strong little apple tree and a hedge of roses. I wove a trellis of rose briars for shelter.
Many, many months passed, and the wasteland was cold in a way different from my tower, perhaps more because I knew what I had lost. Yet my tree bent its fruit to me, and my creek gave me sweet water, so I had enough to survive. I wondered that I grew fat there, but truth revealed that too. When my twins were born, a new warmth entered my heart and soothed the ache of the loss of my dear one.
I still hoped. When my dear one looked at me from the blue eyes of my daughter, and when my son’s laugh echoed his father, I knew that my dear one was true. If he was still in the land of the living he would find me.
Perhaps you think this is a tragedy, but that is not the truth.
One day I sang to my twins, a song their father taught me, and as I sang a lower note joined in. I looked up, out across the wide waste where a figure stood, stooped over a staff. I stopped singing and my heart beat fast.
“Who are you?” I called, and the very words returned to me in that dear voice.
I laughed and ran, over the wide land, and I fell into his arms. He held me so close, but then I saw his eyes were blind! He told me how my false mother had lured him into the tower using my shorn braids. When he reached the window, she shoved him back and he fell into the thorns and brambles below, his blood mingling with the roses. While the thorns robbed him of his sight, the soft roses saved his body, and in his blindness he searched for me. And he found me! I wept at his sacrifice. As I cried, my tears fell on his eyes, and they cleared! He gave a shout that woke our children, and when they raised their heads, his shout turned to wonder. They stared at him, wide-eyed, surrounded by the roses of our home.
And under the warmth of the golden sun my dear one carried us to his kingdom.
Loren Warnemuende is a writer, wife, and homeschool mom of three. She still has a hard time including “writer” as a valid part of who she is, but for most of her life she’s processed the world and how she understands it through written words and stories. While she loves to read various genres, her own stories seem to flow best when she takes a new perspective on an old tale. She is the author of two short stories in the forthcoming The Lost Tales of Sir Galahad (Rabbit Room Press, April 2022). Her Daughter of Arden Trilogy will be published by Bandersnatch Books, starting this fall with Exile.