The Wood Maiden
Yes, I’ll tell you how I came here. I’ll try, anyway. I could tell you my life here easily enough. First the spinning machine at the mill, my back hurting, my eyes wanting sky. Then Ernst, and the children, and saving for a place with a bit of garden, and finding real neighbors. You’d understand all that, but it wouldn’t interest you much. But the beginning!
See, where I grew up, this place was a fairy tale. That machine you’ve set on my table to catch my voice: now I know it’s a tape recorder. Then I would have known it was magic. Maybe I was wrong then. Maybe not.
When I was a little girl there was only one fairy world that we could fall into. The same one you tell your children about, only we knew it was real. People went walking in the woods alone, or they stepped out of the house at night, and they passed through shadows that weren’t really shadows, and they disappeared. No one saw them again. We all knew they’d gone to the other world.
That was why we listened well to fairy tales. If ever we found ourselves in the other world we’d need to know its rules. Youngest children were often heroes, and eldest children and heirs were like to be no better than they should. Very ugly women might be beauties in disguise. Very beautiful women might be wood-maidens, lovelier than a spring morning and crueler than a summer frost, who danced with men and stole their hearts and then disappeared, so the men never worked at anything steady, never loved any human woman, just dreamed of the beauty they’d seen. Cripples and old women had the power to bless and curse, so it was wise to treat them with respect. (There weren’t beggars, not in our world, and not in the parts of the fairy world we knew about; in our world people had neighbors, they had families, and the land was good enough.) It was prudent to save hurt animals, and it was mortal dangerous to break a promise, or to accept a gift from anyone you’d cheated, even if you thought they didn’t know what you’d done.
It might be hard to know if you’d passed through. In some tales that world didn’t sound so different from ours. There might have been a fairy village that looked exactly like our own, and people looking the same, too. My mother took it farther than most; she’d say, who knows, we could be in the fairy village now. It was a good way to make us take care of our neighbors, but I think she meant it too. I can’t go back to ask her now.
The gates opened both ways. Folk from the other world walked in our woods, and sometimes our people met them. When my mother was young she knew a girl with fierce scared eyes and a whispery little voice she hardly ever used. That girl spent a lot of time alone in the woods. One day she came back strong-eyed and singing. She didn’t tell what had happened, but her neighbors could guess. I heard that woman when I was a girl, I remember her songs. There was another woman who’d shy at things that weren’t there, or scream and accuse people of stealing from her. My mother remembered her as a handsome woman who wanted a little more than what she had, who set herself a little above the people around her, but who seemed in her right mind apart from that until she went out alone one night and came back raving. I told my mother it wasn’t fair. My mother said she didn’t know about that, but she knew what her grandmother told her: “Beware the fairies, for they give you what you want.”
So I listened to the tales, and in the woods, in the evenings, I’d wonder what might be moving in the dark unseen. I was excited as much as afraid, wondering that. But I never met anyone from another world until I was twelve years old.
Now I know it was a helicopter. Then I just knew that something like a giant dragonfly hovered down through the sky, roaring like two thunderstorms fighting in a closed room, and settled on the screes above the village. I knew it had come from the fairy world–where else could it have come from? I ran to call my mother. I ran back before she could catch me or order me to stay safe away. I picked a twig of rowan to ward off evil magic. When I got back to the not-dragonfly two men had come out of it; they carried boxes full of flashing light and unearthly sounds, and their skin was pale as if they’d never felt the summer sun.
We knew them for fay-folk. Some of my neighbors wouldn’t look at them. Others welcomed them, maybe from kindness, maybe hoping for gifts of magic or good luck. But it startled us to hear the strangers talking–talking the language I’m talking now. Here and there were words shaped like the ones we knew, but with a funny accent, and mixed with much we couldn’t understand. Mind, we’d never heard another language. Our world was small–the seven villages and the pasture-lands, the places where people were, and the screes above, dotted with stonecrop, too steep and treacherous even for the goats to climb up, and the cliffs below, too steep to climb down, with clouds and tangled treetops underneath. Some people said there used to be a way down, back in my great-great-great-grandmother’s time, and then a landslide swept it away.
So we couldn’t talk well to the strangers, but plainly they were hungry, and tired, and frightened, and one of them was hurt. My uncle took the men into his house. I brought them milk and cheese from the springhouse. Seven days they spent with us, healing and resting up, and trying to talk–we learned a little of their talk–and doing things with their boxes. Then they went back to the not-dragonfly and flew away. We thought that was the end, but it wasn’t.
Next year another not-dragonfly came–came on purpose, you could tell, for its people weren’t hurt or afraid. Then there were more and more of them, carrying men and women, all with that pale skin and those strange boxes, all healthy, all young. Most of the far-comers moved about in groups of their own kind, talking to each other, pointing their boxes at us sometimes, and wanting to take things we’d made and give us coins, but otherwise leaving us be. A few of them were different: they spent a lot of time asking questions, trying to make us understand them, and they watched us all the time. All of them were rich. We used coins now and then, mostly for dowry money, or for buying land from someone with no kin to claim it, or for buying gauds from the smith. Everything we needed we got by working, or by going into the woods and getting it, or by getting it from our neighbors, who knew we’d give them what they needed when they needed it. But the new people had more and brighter coins, and they gave them lavishly for everything; they even tried to give them for food, which offended my mother and all the decent folk in the villages, though I won’t say there weren’t a few shameless ones who took what they could get.
Some of our people got to wanting their bright coins, and the cloth they wore, so much smoother than the cloth we made from wool and mohair. I could do without that. My clothes kept me warm and decent, and I thought the red skirt my mother wove me was the loveliest thing any girl could wear, the way it swung around me when I danced. And I didn’t have to worry about dowry money. I was sharp-eyed Betushka who never let the goats get into the mountain laurel; I was deft-handed Betushka who could spin better than my older sisters; I was light-footed Betushka who danced like a seed on the wind. I’d be able to marry as I wished. And I liked the life I had: all the kinds of green there were in spring, the work, the family, the neighbors, the dancing, the happy lonely time on the slopes with the goats. Still sometimes in the autumn, or in the evening, I’d imagine something more, something richer and wilder, something I heard echoes of in the tales or saw flashes of in the eyes of the new people, and I wanted that too. But my mother told me, “Pay attention to the tale you’re living! Do you think the folk in the tales knew what was happening to them? Do you think they felt glorious all the time?”
Well, that was wise, and I listened. But I listened to the new people too. I was one of the quickest at picking up their way of talking, so a lot of the people-watching ones asked me their questions and looked at me as if I was human. Oh, they looked at the elders too, and asked them questions when I interpreted, but they looked at the elders as if they were looking at goats, or sunsets, or something besides people. That was another reason we thought everyone must be young in the country they came from. But they looked at me as though I was human, and they asked me how I lived, and what I wanted to do when I grew up. They shook their heads and said to each other, What a waste. She has so much potential. Back home she’d have so many opportunities. They didn’t realize I was still listening.
I waited a few days before asking one of them about the words I didn’t know. I didn’t say where I’d heard them. She tried to explain. The best I could figure out then, potential was what something turned into when it grew up, and opportunities were choices. I thought of course I’d grow up, here or there, it didn’t matter, and of course I knew how to choose. And then I wondered what they knew that I didn’t.
In the fall they went away. We thought they must come from a place of endless summer, for they shivered and complained at the first touch of frost. I thought about them sometimes when I was out with the goats. I’d be out on the slopes all day with the herd, spring through fall, carrying a basket of carded roving to spin into thread. Once we’d found a good grazing spot I’d set the spindle dancing in my hands. When the thread was spun–and sometimes before–I’d fold my arms and dance, while the does grazed and the kids danced around me.
That was what I was doing one spring morning a little bit before my fifteenth birthday, when I heard music behind me. First I thought it might be my grandfather with his pipes. Even when his fingers were so stiff he could hardly hold a fork, he could play like a faun. But the tune wasn’t anything Grandfather ever played, it was wilder and sweeter and stranger, and the sound wasn’t quite like his pipe either. I thought it might be Matyas with his fujara. I felt as though a wild bird was fluttering in my inside. I think a lot of girls felt that way about Matyas. I didn’t turn to look, because if it was Matyas I wanted to stop blushing before I looked at him, and if it was someone else I didn’t want to look disappointed.
I knew it wasn’t Matyas when the music paused and I heard a laugh like bells in the wind–a woman’s laugh, almost, but brighter than the voices of the women I knew, the way the autumn colors reflected in a pond look brighter and deeper than the colors on the trees. I did turn around then.
She was standing under an oak tree, and her eyes were beech-bud brown, and she had the loveliest gold gown. She held her hands out to me, and I took them, and the music came up again, and we danced together.
I don’t have the right words for what that was like, dancing with her. Like listening to the best tale I’d ever heard, and like dancing with Matyas, and like hearing the geese going over in the autumn and knowing I could fly with them. The music seemed to come out of the lady, and it wasn’t really like a fujara or like any other instrument I’d ever heard. It kept changing, like her eyes that flashed brown like the beech-buds and green like the new beech-leaves in spring and blue like the winter sky and gold like nothing else in the world, like her hair that was black like mine and golden like some of the far-comers’ and red like rowan berries. I felt that if I kept dancing I’d change too, I’d be as beautiful as her, I’d be her. But I heard one of the goats bellowing. It cut through the music, sort of, and I could have ignored it, but I knew I shouldn’t, so I looked away.
One of the yearling does was tangled in the blackberry brambles. By the time I freed her the music and the lady were gone, and the goats were scattering, and the sun was sliding down the sky, and my roving was in my basket, still unspun. I was ashamed. Even more so when my mother asked what I’d been up to, coming home late with my clothes all anyhow and my eyes looking at something that wasn’t there and my work undone. I said it wasn’t what she thought, and I said I’d see it didn’t happen again, and after a while she let me be.
Well, the next day I meant to do my spinning right away, and I brought enough to spin a double portion, but as soon as I set myself down the music came again, and the lady was there. And while that music played I couldn’t think of anything but dancing with her. I didn’t think we’d danced long, but finally I felt the air growing cold around me, and I saw it was late again, and I stumbled, and the music stopped, and I started crying like a little girl, not a maid of fourteen.
The lady asked me why. I told her about the spinning I hadn’t done. “Is that all?” she asked in her bell voice. When she spoke I couldn’t think why it mattered, but I knew it did. “Such a waste”, the lady said, “for you’ve better things to do with your time. Here, see!” And she took the spindle and the reel and started up another music, and the roving spun itself out into a fine smooth thread in the time it took me to start the goats toward home.
As I went home I must have looked into that basket a dozen times to be sure the thread was still there. When I brought it in the house my mother looked at it and told me I’d done well, but she said not to go so far next time, to come back by full daylight. I said I would, and we sat down to supper pretty well pleased with each other.
After supper my mother went to string my thread onto the loom. It didn’t look like so much in the basket, but once she’d strung all the warp threads—and that was a big loom, tall as she was, and wide as her arms would go—she turned to me and said “Betushka, you’d think I hadn’t taken anything out of this basket; there seems to be just as much in there as when I started.” She took some then to wind over onto reels for dyeing. I stood behind her to look. She wound three reels full, and there was still as much thread in that basket as there ever had been.
I’d seen my mother angry before when she was frightened–when my older sister fell out of the lime tree and broke her arm, when my brother took the fever. But I’d never seen her quite so angry as she was that night. She wasn’t one to fume and fuss with her angers. She went cold quiet, and it frightened me. She took my shoulders and stared into my eyes and said “Bet, what have you been doing?”
I didn’t know how to answer her. I was afraid she wouldn’t believe me. I was afraid she’d believe me, want to keep me safe, and decide to shut me away inside. I just stood there looking at her, and finally she breathed out slow and hard and turned back to the reels. They were empty. The loom was unstrung. There was nothing in the basket.
Oh, she warned me. She said the things that mothers always said to children who spent too much time lingering in the shadows, hoping to be taken into the other world. She reminded me of the fear and strangeness and darkness that were in the tales along with the light, and she told me the fairies’ gifts always came at a high price. Finally I cried and I put my head down in my hands and I told her what had happened.
She held me then, and she told me she loved me, and she told me I was lucky I was a girl, for it must have been a wood-maiden I’d met, and if I’d been a boy she’d have stolen my heart for sure if she hadn’t just danced me to death. And then she looked hard at me and asked if the lady had stolen my heart anyway. I said no. I hoped it was true.
She didn’t ask me what I’d been wanting that had brought the wood-maiden to me instead of some kinder guest from the fairy world. I don’t know that I could have told her if she’d asked.
She would have had me stay close to home and do the in-work, but I said no, if I lost the goats and the wild places as well as the wood-maiden and her music my heart would really be stolen. So she let me go again, but she gave me a whistle to call for help, and wax plugs to put in my ears, and rowan to wear at my breast. And in the morning off I went again.
The wood-maiden came, and the music came with her. This time her hair and her eyes and her clothes were like mine, only richer, brighter. I put the plugs into my ears and took the spindle in my hand and shut my eyes. It didn’t help much; the air kind of shivered with her being there. I knew when she was gone again. I unstopped my ears and opened my eyes. The spinning was off to a fair start–I’d done that well enough by feel–but the goats were gone. I was late home again because it took me so long to round them back up, but my mother looked at my face and knew what I’d done, and she was proud of me just the same. I was proud too. And I thought that maybe the next day I’d be able to keep my eyes open enough to see the goats, if I just didn’t look right at the wood-maiden.
That day she didn’t come. I spun my thread. The goats chewed and muttered. The sun blazed in the new beech-leaves, but the colors seemed thin somehow without her there. When I’d finished spinning I got up and tried to dance to my memory of her music, but it was gone from my mind, leaving just the wanting behind. I thought of the tunes I used to dance to, but I didn’t care about them any more.
That’s how it was all that summer. The days were hard. The nights were harder. Hardest was knowing my mother watched and worried over me. At the Midsummer dances my feet dragged behind the music, and Matyas danced with Dana often enough so everybody noticed it. They all noticed, too, that something ailed me. Some thought that I was pining for Matyas, others that I was bewitched. It got so that I wanted to be away from their watching and wondering almost as much as I wanted to hear the wood-maiden’s music. And then the not-dragonfly came again.
This time the far-comers didn’t say anything about potential in front of me. Maybe it was because they knew I could understand them. They were careful and polite in their talk with me, as some people were careful with Ilonna, who had a woman’s body and a child’s mind, or Mirku, whose face was twisted and shiny with burn scars. I wondered if they’d always been that way with me, with us all, and I just hadn’t noticed. I wondered, too, what they had in their world that made mine seem so poor to them.
Finally I got my courage up to ask one of the people-watchers what the secret words were that got them their places on the not-dragonfly. She didn’t understand. I’d never asked about the not-dragonfly before: we all knew it was unchancy to ask about magic. But I had to know. When she finally understood she told me it wasn’t words, it was coins–more coins than the whole village had. I smiled as if it didn’t matter, and I went away sad.
It was a proud and good thing to refuse the wood-maiden’s magic, or the far-comers’ magic, but to be forgotten by the wood-maiden, and too poor to fly in the not-dragonfly, that was bitter hard. That hardness settled on me, dimmed the colors of the leaves, soured the taste of bread and cheese, slowed my feet when I tried to dance.
One golden autumn day I heard a step that wasn’t a goat’s behind me. I turned, and the wood-maiden was there. Music fell like leaves around us. I shook like I had the chills, wanting to dance, remembering that I’d promised my mother. I set my jaw and told her, “I can’t dance with you.” I couldn’t help adding, “And I can’t really dance without you any more, either.”
She looked at me with soft blue eyes like the far-comers’ and said, “You’re not happy here.” I shook my head. She took something from the folds of her golden gown and gave it to me. A little leather pouch, full but lightweight.
“Don’t look at what’s inside,” she told me, “until you’re alone in your room at home. Don’t tell your mother about it, or it will be gone like the thread I spun for you. If you keep it, you’ll have a way out.”
I took the pouch, and she and the music were gone.
I told myself I should throw the pouch away, but how could I without knowing what it was? I was afraid to sneak it into the house–my mother wouldn’t see it in my pocket, but she’d see it in my eyes. I started to open the pouch. The first thing that poked out was a birch leaf, dry and dead. I stared at it a while, and I thought about myself growing old and dying and never dancing with the wood-maiden again, and never seeing the other world where the not-dragonfly went. I tore the leaf in little pieces and threw it on the ground. I pulled out two more leaves and did the same thing. And then I thought I should keep the rest, to remind me of the foolishness of listening to fay-folk’s promises. So I went home with nothing in my face but my old disappointment.
In the middle of the night I woke with the moon shining in the window and the wanting pounding in my blood. I sat up and opened the pouch again, hating myself. And it wasn’t full of leaves at all. It was stuffed with bits of paper with strange figures on them. Strange, but I’d seen them before. The far-comers used those papers–they said they were worth many coins.
So now I had a choice again. I thought of it over and over while I was supposed to be minding the goats, and I let a kid get into the mountain laurel, and it died. It was harder to be proud then, and harder still the next spring when Matyas was betrothed to Dana just before the not-dragonfly came again. I went off with the goats and tried to avoid the far-comers, I told myself they’d make me no happier than the wood-maiden had. But I wanted…oh, I wanted. I asked a woman–not a people-watcher, another one, who wouldn’t think too much about why I asked– if there was room for another person in the not-dragonfly, and she said yes, she thought so, but I’d have to ask the pilot. She told me when he’d come again. I didn’t tell my mother anything. I told myself I wouldn’t go. I went.
You can guess the rest. You’ve heard it all before from others who came here, not just from my place. At first it looked like the fairy court, with all the bright lights, with the music pouring from the shop windows, with the bright screens flashing images of dances I had never imagined. And then I learned that I needed money, not just for the helicopter ride, but for food, shelter, warmth, a place in the dances. I saw old people shut away in bare white buildings with no kin or friends. I saw people who were hungry and went unfed, with all the food that was in the city, because they had no money. I gave them too much of mine–I thought I’d crossed over into a tale, and generosity there is wiser than it seems to be in this world. I learned that I had to find work so I could get more money, and then I learned that no one in the city I had come to wanted a goat-herd, or a hand-spinner either. Not that they didn’t think I’d do that work well, they just didn’t want it done. They didn’t really see me at all. I decided that going unnoticed wasn’t the blessing I’d thought it would be. Finally I knew that I didn’t want to be here, that I wanted to go home, but I didn’t have enough money to pay my way back.
I was lucky, still. I never had to beg. I never had, either, to make money by dancing with self-pitying men, telling them they were beautiful, and doing what they told me. A woman helped me to find work spinning with a great roaring machine instead of my drop-spindle. That machine could spin as fast as the wood-maiden had, but the noise of the machinery was nothing like her music, or the quiet of the high slopes.
I was lucky. Before my soul died of the noise I found the folk-dances on Saturday nights. My legs weren’t graceful as they once had been, and always in the back of my mind I heard the emptiness where the wood-maiden’s music had been, but I heard too the quiet where the machine-noise wasn’t, and some memory of home. And I found Ernst. He wasn’t Matyas, but he was a decent man, and he wanted what I wanted: a place with room for a garden, and quiet enough to make music in, and neighbors who’d help and be helped by him, for in places here that happens almost as it did back home. With working, and saving, and luck, we got our place in time for the children. I gave them what I could, and I think I taught them to take pleasure in what they had. It got so I didn’t long so for the place I came from, for while that was my home it wouldn’t be home to Ernst, nor to the children either.
I found the center for immigrants, too. Their places and their languages were strange to me but I was quick with languages, and people took to me there, just as the far-comers had back home. I did a lot of listening. Many of them had come here because they had to get away from where they were before. Some of those had scarred faces and missing limbs. Others had scars under their clothes and behind their eyes. But there were plenty who’d come wanting what I wanted, or wanting the bright life they’d seen in their magic boxes, and they were disappointed and lost.
I listened, mostly, instead of talking. But there was one before who asked me how I came. I told him what I’ve told you. He asked if my people could get into the fairy world from this place as well as from home, or could call folk from there to us. He wasn’t just curious. He wanted to know for himself, he wanted a way out. I told him that I couldn’t help. Whether or not this place has doors into the fairy world, I won’t see the wood-maiden again. I doubt that her kind come in any world to those who’ve learned to be content.
Joanna Hoyt lives with her family on a farm in upstate New York where she spends her days tending goats, gardens and guests and her evenings reading and writing odd stories. Her work has been published in Scheherezade’s Bequest, Mindflights, and Daily Science Fiction.