This is the seventh section of my story “The Rose in Twelve Petals.” If you would like to see the previous sections, look below!
Alice climbs the tower stairs. She could avoid this perhaps, disguise herself as a peasant woman and beg her way to the Highlands, like a heroine in Scott’s novels. But she does not want to avoid this, so she is climbing up the tower stairs on the morning of her seventeenth birthday, still in her nightgown and clutching a battered copy of Goethe’s poems whose binding is so torn that the book is tied with pink ribbon to keep the pages together. Her feet are bare, because opening the shoe closet might have woken the Baroness, who has slept in her room since she was a child. Barefoot, she has walked silently past the sleeping guards, who are supposed to guard her today with particular care. She has walked past the Queen Dowager’s drawing room thinking: if anyone hears me, I will be in disgrace. She has spent a larger portion of her life in disgrace than out of it, and she remembers that she once thought of it as an imaginary country, Disgrace, with its own rivers and towns and trade routes. Would it be different if her mother were alive? She remembers a face creased from the folds of the pillow, and pale lips whispering to her about the lily maid of Astolat. It would, she supposes, have made no difference. She trips on a step and almost drops the book.
She has no reason to suppose, of course, that the Witch will be there, so early in the morning. But somehow, Alice hopes she will be.
She is, sitting on a low stool with a spinning wheel in front of her.
“Were you waiting for me?” asks Alice. It sounds silly—who else would the Witch be waiting for? But she can think of nothing else to say.
“I was.” The Witch’s voice is low and cadenced, and although she has wrinkles at the corners of her mouth and her hair has turned gray, she is still rather beautiful. She is not, exactly, what Alice expected.
“How did you know I was coming so early?”
The Witch smiles. “I’ve gotten rather good at magic. I sell fortunes for my living, you see. It’s not much, just enough to buy bread and butter, and to rent a small cottage. But it amuses me, knowing things about people — their lives and their futures.”
“Do you know anything — about me?” Alice looks down at the book. What idiotic questions to be asking. Surely a heroine from Scott’s novels would think of better.
The Witch nods, and sunlight catches the silver cross suspended from a chain around her neck. She says, “I’m sorry.”
Alice understands, and her face flushes. “You mean that you’ve been watching all along. That you’ve known what it’s been like, being the cursed princess.” She turns and walks to the tower window, so the Witch will not see how her hands are shaking. “You know the other girls wouldn’t play with me or touch my toys, that the boys would spit over their shoulders, to break the curse they said. Even the chambermaids would make the sign of the cross when I wasn’t looking.” She can feel tears where they always begin, at the corners of her eyes, and she leans out the window to cool her face. Far below, a gardener is crossing the courtyard, carrying a pair of pruning shears. She says, “Why didn’t you remove the curse, then?”
“Magic doesn’t work that way.” The Witch’s voice is sad. Alice turns around and sees that her cheeks are wet with tears. Alice steps toward her, trips again, and drops the book, which falls under the spinning wheel.
The Witch picks it up and smiles as she examines the cover. “Of course, your Goethe. I always wondered what happened to Wolfgang Magus.”
Alice thinks with relief: I’m not going to cry after all. “He went away, after his sister died. She had consumption, you know, for years and years. He was always sending her money for medicine. He wrote to me once after he left, from Berlin, to say that he had bought his old master’s house. But I never heard from him again.”
The Witch wipes her cheeks with the back of one hand. “I didn’t know about his sister. I spoke to him once. He was a kind man.”
Alice takes the book from her, then says, carefully, as though each word has to be placed in the correct order, “Do you think his spell will work? I mean, do you think I’ll really sleep for a hundred years, rather than — you know?”
The Witch looks up, her cheeks still damp, but her face composed. “I can’t answer that for you. You may simply be — preserved. In a pocket of time, as it were.”
Alice tugs at the ribbon that binds the book together. “It doesn’t matter, really. I don’t think I care either way.” She strokes the spinning wheel, which turns as she touches it. “How beautiful, as though it had been made just for me.”
The Witch raises a hand, to stop her perhaps, or arrest time itself, but Alice places her finger on the spindle and presses until a drop of blood blossoms, as dark as the petal of a Cardinal de Richelieu, and runs into her palm.
Before she falls, she sees the Witch with her head bowed and her shoulders shaking. She thinks, for no reason she can remember, Elaine the fair, Elaine the lovable . . .