Stone Telling

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by Delia Sherman

1.  The Woodcutter

He climbs the ladder, rungs creaking underfoot,
Dreary as hunger.  At the back of the loft,
Two children cup themselves around a pocket of warmth
Like mice in the hay, chewing on straws for comfort.
Their whispering stops as he approaches,
Kneels, stiff as frost, touches their cold faces
And says—

Hush, my children.  Hush, or you'll wake her.
She sleeps light these days,
What with the cold, and her belly griping her,
And the baby on the way.

As for missing supper, what there was of it,
You've only yourselves to blame.
We'd given up hope you'd find your way home.
Your stepmother and I were frantic.
There's things in the woods, you know—
Wolves, bears, witches—
Who prey on children.
The trail of stones was clever, but
You wouldn't have needed one,
Had you obeyed me and waited.

I know you're hungry.  We're all hungry.
The price of wood is low,
The hunting poor, as poor as I am.
You stepmother, well, she's not strong.
Surely you don't begrudge her a mouthful of soup,
Not with a baby on the way.

Remember now.
Stay where I leave you next time.
I may be late, but I'll always come.
You'll see.
When we go out to the woods again.

2.  The Merchant

Catfoot down the marble stairs he comes,
His bed gown hisses from step to step,
His candle flares his shadow on the wall.
Crossing the hall, he bows his night-capped head,
To clear the low-pitched kitchen door.
By the hearth she sits, her bare feet in the ashes,
Her bright hair quenched beneath a homespun cloth.
Her hands rest like scarlet fish in her lap,
Swollen and rough with scrubbing pots and floors.
He touches her shoulder, wincing at the smell
Of wood-smoke and kitchen-grease and sweat.
She lifts her eyes to him, fiery with weeping.
He says—

Dry your tears, my dear, and wash your face.
Your poor old father's heart will break,
Seeing you like this, so weary and so sad.
When I think how pretty you used to be,
When your dear mother brought you to say goodnight
In your lace nightgown and your little white feet!
I could weep myself, remembering.
Still, what's done is past, as the saying goes.
You're a grown woman, and your mother's dead,
And I have taken a harpy to wife.

You know what she's like when she's in one of her moods.
And those daughters of hers!  Unbearable,
The pair of them, chattering, giggling,
Demanding hats, gowns, lace collars, ribbons,
Shoes.  And if I say I'm not made of money,
She'll only fire another servant to economize.
It'll be the cook next, or the groom.
Sometimes I wish I'd never met her, despite her beauty and connections.
Why, she enters my office without checking to see
If I might be occupied, she will be
Talking when I'm trying to rest,
Won't let me bring a book with me to table.
And the things she says when she's in a temper!
I tell you, daughter,
I am much to be pitied.

3.  The King

He sits upon his throne.  To either side
Lords and servants, petitioners and clerks
Come and go with questions, wine, and cakes,
Favors to grant, decrees that must be signed.
Beside him sits his second wife, all ivory
And gold, a splendid creature—the perfect image
Of a queen.  Nothing like his first wife,
Who sewed and sighed and wept in her bower,
Who could not even give him a daughter
Without dying of it.
He says—

How's my daughter these days, my dear?
She must be nearly grown by now,
Old enough to think of coming to court,
Start learning what she needs to know
To be a wife and queen.
Yes, it's time and more than time
To bring my daughter back to court,
Have her portrait done,
Find her an advantageous Prince to marry.

What's that?  She's only twelve? Yes, so she is—
She was seven when we sent her to the country—
I'd forgot.  Such a lovely child,
Shy as a deer and modest as a mouse,
With her mother's hair like ebony,
Her snowy skin, her lips like drops of blood.
Puppy fat, you say?  Spots?  Oh, dear!
You think they might leave scars?
Well, that won't do.

No, let her live retired, mind her needle
And her book, learn deportment, conversation,
Dancing.  Aren't cucumbers good for spots?
Or was it lemons?  Twelve's an awkward age
For a girl.  Best wait a year or two,
See if she improves.  You've no idea
What a worry a daughter can be
To a loving father.

Delia Sherman is best known as a writer of short stories and novels.  Her short fiction has appeared in many anthologies, most recently Teeth and Naked City.  Her most recent novels are for younger readers: Changeling and The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen and the forthcoming The Freedom Maze.  She does not think of herself as a poet, but will write it when someone (in this case, Terri Windling) tells her to.  When not gallivanting hither and yon, she lives in New York City with her wife, Ellen Kushner, many books, and no pets whatsoever.

Read Delia's discussion of this poem over at the Roundtable!

Photography: Modified from Dreamers Disease, by Gabriela Camerotti.