Friday, December 13, 2013

Spinning a Vine: A Tale

Once upon a time a daughter was born to a royal house.  She was quite sickly at birth—indeed they had thought her stillborn but the little one roused to life and surprised them all. Since then, her parents constantly worried and sought to do everything to protect her even from her own shadow.  Her father’s health and his mind deteriorated over time and he became even more overbearing.
                She would look out her window to the sweeping landscape beyond, to the small copse of trees, and she would watch the sunrise. Her world centered in her room, and even in a state of disarray she always had a chair vacant for the gods, should they ever care to visit her. The king felt uncomfortable: why should she even think they would bother chatting with her when they should be visiting the palace sanctuary instead? So he would have things placed on the chair and she would clear them off daily.
                He would hear the girl playing music and he put a stop to that for her own good—her education was better invested elsewhere. He saw that the girl was telling stories...she should be getting on with her chores instead... and had there been a note of rebellion in her tales? She listened to others recite poems when she should spend time with him and the rest of her family instead. All she had left was her dreams at night, and spinning and her weaving by day, and it was almost enough. Almost, but not quite.
                She came of an age for courtship, but since she always had an escort no one could get close to her. She resigned herself and didn’t bother asking her father to loosen his hold; she didn’t know how. She had tried to ask before and it had ended badly. Somehow it would become her fault—she was overreacting, or contrary, or misguided, or ill. And her freedoms, what little morsels meagerly meted out would be taken away.
                The girl felt her soul seeping away breath by breath only to be replaced with emptiness for there was nothing to nourish it. She thought of ending her despair more swiftly... But a voice, perhaps that of a god, filled her mind and counseled her. He listened to her. He laid her options before her: to live or to die. He laid the situation before her: she was in an emotional state, and this state could cloud judgment. He aligned the options with the situation: one choice is reversible and the other was not. He asked her if it was possible that she could make a mistake in her judgment while in this state?  Then was it more fitting to choose an option that was reversible, in case of an error in judgment brought on by intense distress; or an option that was irreversible? The presence was gentle, thoughtful, wise, and didn’t condemn her for her thoughts. She decided to carry on and leave open her options.
                One day, as she looked out her window, she saw a small caravan of people, and a handsome youth in particular.  He looked aflame as the sun’s rays caught around him. She felt that odd fluttering of the chest when one is stirred to love. Would he come to court her? But how could he? He didn’t know she existed. Was it wicked of her to think this way when her father needed her...? She hated her own weakness, her own indecisiveness.
                She took a deep breath and resolved at least to find out more. She made herself plain, and scarce, and small, as she tried to listen. This was a contingent from a neighboring kingdom. They were given in tribute. She thought tribute was a matter of financial exchange; her brow furrowed and she strained her ears. Guards would lock them up tomorrow beneath the palace there they would stay until... Until what? And the lives of other good youths of her kingdom would be spared. From what? It all sounded ghastly, but it left much to her imagination and she needed facts. She needed a better perspective...maybe if she could see into that area below the palace where she wasn’t allowed to go. The girl scurried off to her father’s library, praying fervently that no one would see her. After leafing through the stacks, she found the scroll she sought—the plans to the palace. The foundation was built on an entire maze of corridors, but the drawings weren’t exact and didn’t show everything. It all looked like an elaborate system, but designed to do what? She got the feeling it was an oubliette of some sort, a place of storing horrors one wanted to forget. The sound of shuffling footfalls in the corridor nearby urged her to roll up the scroll and tuck it in its customary place. She dashed to her room to think.
                Picking up her beloved spindle and a tuft of wool, she let her mind succumb to thought. She often spun on her spindle as she thought. She twisted the spindle like a top and allowed the twist to travel into the soft, warm tuft. The activity often soothed her, the movement of the whorl induced a light trance and helped her find clarity. She called a hello over to the little spider who had made a home with her and she watched the spider go about her own spinning and weaving. The spider’s web never failed to amaze her, the configuration of twists and turns...twists and turns with a thread leading through them...a thread like the one on her spindle. Of course! If only she could get the thread to the fine young man she saw. That would fix everything. The thought of those youths rotting away in that dismal place because of her people was too terrible to contemplate.
               She resolved to slip out at night and find the hapless group —tribute or not tribute, she hoped to find them sheltered for a short time in the guests’ quarters. She had never sneaked around at night before—she hadn’t dared. But tonight was different. She stashed her spindle in a basket and crept through the corridors. Taking a deep breath, she tried to remind herself that it didn’t matter anymore for she still had a choice, a dreadful one, she could make.  
             On the way, she saw a short sword hanging on the wall as part of a display. She plucked it—did they hear the clanging?—and nestled it under the cloth in her basket. Perhaps he would need this while he was fighting unknown dangers, or perhaps the thread could get snared and become a detriment. Fleetingly, she wondered what configuration he would weave the thread into as he passed through the twisting shapes of the underground passages, and she wondered and what the resulting web would reveal about the one who wove it. She found the guest quarters and asked for a servant to bring him to her. The servant hollered that he had an “admirer” that wanted to meet him. She thought she would die of embarrassment...if one could do such a thing.
                “What? I’m busy here. What could you possibly want?”
                “I...” She had trouble finding her voice.
                He leaned against the doorframe, then turned to go back in.
                “I...havesomethingthatcouldhelpyou,” she said in a rush.
                She cleared her throat and tried to shush the pounding of her heart lest the sound of it overcome her voice. “I have something. It can help you.”
                “Nothing can help me. Don’t you know? I’m a condemned man. We’re all condemned. Get out of here.”
                One of the “condemned” whispered in his ear. He motioned for her to come into the room. “Fine. What do you have?”
                Arrogance marred his features and she second-guessed her decision. But she still didn’t want him lost or killed. “Um. First. We discuss terms.”
                “Terms? Show me what you have. I won’t bargain for what I can’t see.” His friend whispered again. He rolled his eyes. “And your terms are...?”
                “Be my friend.” For the love of gods, appreciate the difficulty of my position. Appreciate my gift. Appreciate me. But she didn’t say that.
                “Just show me what’s in the basket.”
                She pulled out the short sword, and then her own spindle filled with thread she had spun. It was her only spindle, her most cherished item, like a beloved doll of a lonely girl. She chased that thought from her mind. Seeing it there near the sword, she realized that she had all three sister Fates represented—spindle, thread, knife.
                His eyes landed on the short sword. “It’s tiny. It’s rusted. It’s dull.” He called out to another friend to ask if his whetstone had been taken away when guards had confiscated their weapons and other items. “Alright, so that seems almost useful. But what would I want with a woman’s spindle? What are you trying to push off on me?”
                She explained to him how he could unwind the spindle and use the thread to trace paths around the corridors, so that they wouldn’t get lost. He nodded with slow, thoughtful approval. “And all you want is...friendship?” He looked at her, looked at his buddies, and shrugged. “Done.”
                She prayed he would keep his word and quickly gathered the items before he could take them away. “I will meet you at dawn by the gate which leads to the corridors under the palace.”
                “As if I had a choice...” he said.
                Her gut churned in fear, worry, and anticipation the entire night; she left her room before dawn. She wrenched open the bent, creaking gate and stashed the basket before leaving and closing the gate behind her. Not long afterwards, the guards ushered the youths past the gate—her brave one met her eyes and she nodded.  No one else noticed a basket tucked off to the side. After a small eternity, the youths got through the subterranean passages and back to the entrance gate. Splattered with blood, the brave one returned triumphant and brandishing the head of a great beast. He threw it at the king. It was only then that the king saw his daughter’s spindle on the ground near the entrance with a trail of her fine thread. “Daughter! How you have betrayed me! I have only loved you. How could you do this to me?”
                The youth curled his lip in disgust at the king. Then he called to her, “Are you coming or not?”
                The king collapsed on to the ground as his legs caved from under him. Her heart broke for him despite everything, even despite her own frustration and years of quiet anger. She left with her young man and they boarded a ship. It became apparent on the third day that one of the king’s ships tailed them. The brave youth who became more kingly—but not nobler—since his trial, took her aside and said, “Your father will not rest until he has ‘rescued’ you. He is a nuisance. I hate to do this. But...see that island over there? That’s your new home. I have to take care of my people. I hope you understand.”
                The blood rushed from her face and hands. Surely not! But he had done as he had spoken, and they abandoned her with a couple skins of water and a few rations. She cursed the one she saved with all the inner fire left that she could summon, but it was cold comfort.
                What would happen when her father’s ship landed on this shore? She had given the youth everything she had. Everything. Even her beloved spindle with the very thread of her hands, every length of it imbued with her time, her thought, her essence, her only solace in a place of stagnation. Her everything meant nothing to him. If her father came to collect her, he would shroud her in shame she didn’t deserve and her existence would be ever more constrained. She grabbed a fistful of sand and pounded it into the ground. No, she couldn’t go back. Her options were scant, but she knew exactly what they were. Her sobs wracked her body, her tears streamed down her face and joined with the frothy salt water. Exhaustion took over and she slumped there asleep on the wetted shore; her last thought of a tide coming in and washing her out to sea. She was broken.
                How could she know that her tears had weighed and pulled on the heartstrings of a god? Instead of a piece of driftwood cast off, he saw a precious living creation whose very breath was everything good and holy, an exaltation of the cosmos. The god had found her, and understood what she had done and why, and understood what the youth threw away. The same had happened to the god many times. How many times had he aided people through mazes of transformations? And how little did they value his aid, or understand how much he has done for them when he gave all? How little did they understand how he has loved them? And they throw it away. Her agony resonated with his, and he would not—no, he could not—walk away. When she awoke he held her close and shared his cup, and together they spun and wove a new pattern, the pattern of the vine.

Photo of grass maze in Troy, located by a roadside in the Howardian Hills of Yorkshire, England, near the villages of Dalby, and Skewsby, close to Sheriff Hutton, a few miles north of York. Photo by Simon Garbutt. Photo is in Public Domain. 


  1. This is a really beautiful retelling. Thank you.

    1. You are welcome, Teka. Thank you for reading--I hope it brought a little beauty to your day.