For fourteen years, the girl had fetched the plums and cared for her mother and wondered when it was the old woman would finally die, the entire time dreaming of a life that was more than the plums, her mother’s slackened skin, and her ever-hungry mouth. Her fantasies spun out of air and bitterness, the girl envisioned a prince astride his horse, his hand reaching for hers before sweeping her upward to cover her mouth in kisses and her thin wrists and fingers in glittering diamonds.
“Sweet,” her mother said, and the girl did not know if the word was meant for her or for the ripened plum dribbling in her hand.
“There will be no more tomorrow. The man said.” The girl did not tell her mother how the man who sold the best plums had lead her away from his cart that morning, promising fruit that was most ripe, how he had turned on her, and she could see behind him that there were no baskets, nothing close to what he had promised, and how her skin had gone cold with the knowledge of his intention. She did not tell her mother how he had pawed at the neck of her dress, his hand working clumsily at his crotch as he breathed sour air against her lips, how she’d gone still as a rabbit in the long moments before its death, or how she’d watched as a bee landed on his shoulder, its slow movements almost purposeful as it made its way to the folds of skin at his neck.
He’d gone no further, and she’d stumbled away, confused by the basket of plums he’d pushed into her hands and the tightened look on his face that seemed like fear but could not be. And now, she stood before her mother feeding her those lovely plums and hating how the juice clung to her, how even now the man seemed to stain her despite the distance between them. When she was princess, she would cut his heart from his chest and eat it, bite by bite. She smiled at the thought, but her mother’s fingernails dug into her arm, and the girl cried out.
“There will be more. There are always more. Liar,” her mother said.
“The crop is slow. I cannot.”
“You will go, or I will make it so that you cannot walk. I may be old, but I can yield a switch yet, girl. Mark me,” her mother said, and the girl dropped her head, her shame and guilt heavy on her.
She would go back to the market, but she would buy her plums elsewhere, and her mother would be none the wiser. She could not know the difference in taste as she once had, her tongue grown indifferent beneath all of those years. The girl told herself these things, but she understood how little truth they carried.
The next morning, she rose and pulled her cloak over her head, but even the heavy cloth did nothing to disguise her from the man as she passed his cart. She ignored his beckoning hands and then his sneer and the line of spittle he directed just past her feet and went quickly. She bought plums from a boy, barely old enough to have a cart at market, but she knew they were not ripe enough, knew they were too small and would break bitter and wooden over the tongue.
“I trust you found them?” Her mother said as she entered.
“Yes, Mother,” she said, but her hands shook as she cut them and fed the pieces to her mother, her gaze falling anywhere but on her mother’s hazed stare.
Her mother chewed and then spat. “It is not as it should be.”
“You do not listen. Too absorbed with things and dreams that do not belong to you. A stupid girl stumbling about as if there would be something to rescue her. And now you cannot even find the right plums.”
Her mother drew back her hand, but there was not enough strength in her mother’s wasted arm to hit her, and her mother let her hand drop.
“You would have me gone, would you not, you ungrateful creature? Yes, you would have me gone, but it would not put a crown on your head. Would not soften your hands, your curls, so that a prince would see you and sigh with the pain of his longing.” Her mother panted and wheezed but continued. “Your body is a thing for carrying. Remember that.”
The girl watched as her mother scattered the plums, their purpled skins breaking open as they fell. Later, she would clean the mess on hands and knees and wish again for a life that was not her own.
When night had fallen, and her mother had gone to sleep on the small cot beside her, the girl allowed herself to cry in silence. Her tears were not made of diamonds or pearls but tasted only of salt and bitterness, and she wondered when there would be deliverance. There would be no prince for her. Her mother was right. Her only hope remained in the tales she’d read of princesses found after being stolen away from their rightful homes and left in cottages with evil mothers. Before a princess was discovered, there would be signs. A death. A flowering. A cycle enacted and a path to be followed.
She fell asleep, her lips damp with tears, and dreamed of a meadow overgrown with flowers as fat bees clambered over delicate petals, their buzzing a harsh discordant sound that made her cup her ears with her hands. In the morning when she woke, the cottage was silent. The rise and fall of her mother’s breathing — a sound she’d come to expect — was gone.
“Mother?” The girl could not bring herself to move, to pull back her quilt to rise and look upon what she already knew. She had wished for it. Whatever magic existed in the world had found her and granted this wish. She squeezed her eyes closed, the morning sun still burning against her lids with a deep, orange heat, and when she opened them again, she forced herself up, to go and see what remained to be seen.
• • •
“To dust and ash, the flesh resumes its form. Blessed does our sister go,” the priest said, his hands folded over his breast. A fistful of earth, a scattering of dried petals, and the burial was done.
“All will be well, young one,” the priest told her and then turned away, and the girl was alone. For the first time, truly alone.
That evening, the girl sat at the window of her mother’s house — not her mother’s anymore but actually her own — and watched as night fell and wondered if her hands would always feel so empty. Without the plums, there was so little for her to do. Her mother had said she was meant to carry. What good could her body possibly serve now?
Her face pressed against the cool pane, she slept and dreamt of trees, monstrous in size, their roots alive and breathing, flopping in bloodied earth. From everywhere came a harsh sound that she knew but could not identify. She woke with her hand on her throat and fear and shame in her heart. Shame for her mother’s death. Shame for the thrill of freedom stealing through her blood as she envisioned the days stretching before her, freed of her mother’s need for care, freed from the sticky juice of plums covering her hands and wrists. There was enough money yet. Hidden away in the cupboards. She would live simply as she always had, but she would be free.
Still, she would be no princess, and the thought tugged at her, and old wound freshly opened. Free, yes, but without luxuries. Without anything lovely. Even with her mother gone, there would be nothing beyond the scrubbed bareness of this same house. Reminders of all those years of drudgery and dust.
When the morning birds began their song in earnest and the bees devout in their work, she rose. She would go to the market as she always had but to buy bread and cheese and the honey wine she had seen the last time she’d visited and any other thing that was not plums, and return to eat and drink in the meadow beyond the cottage, her head bathed in light, the early spring flowers painted in colors that were the bleached counterparts of those found in autumn. She could weave the petals into a circlet: a crown of her own making. She could have, at least, this small loveliness.
Before she went, she carried in water from the well and scrubbed at her face until her skin blushed, but she still recognized the features reflected in the water she’d poured into the bowl. Perhaps if her eyes were green and not brown, her hair silken rather than curled, a prince would have found her long ago and placed gold on her finger and claimed her as his own. It would not have been like the ugly sweating and heaving of the plum seller when the prince claimed her, but there would have been a quiet beauty in it that she would have carried forever just under her skin.
She dashed her image with her fingers and tugged her dress over her shift, being certain her waist was cinched tight, and hurried into her boots.
The sellers at the market dipped their heads as she passed — a sign of deference for her mother’s death — but she did not have to go so far as the plum seller, did not have to watch him pretend to offer his condolences and keep herself from the desire to rake her fingernails over his face.
She gathered her small meal, stopping to smell the loaves of bread, making her choices slowly, testing the various cheeses offered before she selected. The honey wine seller was an old woman, hunch-backed with kind eyes that flashed, but the girl had never seen her before. She’d seen honey wine for sale in the past, but wine was something her mother had never permitted, and so she’d always passed by the seller — an older man with hair the color of raven feathers and a limp. Perhaps this woman was his wife or a sister, come to the market for him.
“You won’t find anything sweeter,” the woman said, and the girl offered her coin, but the woman waved her away.
“A gift,” the woman said and winked as she tucked a second bottle beside the first in the girl’s basket. A bee crept along her jaw, but she did not brush it away.
“I cannot. It’s too much,” the girl said and again offered the coin, but the woman shook her head.
“The first time should always be a gift. And it is your first, is it not?”
The girl blushed, and she could not see that it was lovely.
“To bring your heart’s desire. There are secrets bound inside of you. Things that would devour every scrap of you rather than wither. This will drown all; will make your body something more than a thing meant to carry.”
The words — so like her mother’s — made the girl start, her breath hitching as she opened her mouth to speak, to ask this woman who she was, but the old woman was shooing her away, and with her basket full, she traced her way home, her feet a distraction from the imaginary worlds she spun herself as they trod through the dust.
In the meadow, she sat, her legs tucked neatly beside her, and unpacked her basket. She’d not remembered to bring a glass, but she was alone and so she removed the stopper from the first bottle and, feeling deliciously wicked, brought it to her lips.
Instantly, her throat and tongue were coated in a sweetness and heat she had never known, and she gasped, but the wine buzzed through her, warming her chest, so she drank again and again, not minding the small amount of liquid dribbling down her chin. There was only the sweetness, her deep need for it, and when the bottle was emptied, she could not keep herself from opening the other.
In those moments, the sky deepened, changed to turquoise and then vermillion and then ochre, a bruising of a thing that could not bleed, and she could hear the dull roar of a beehive come awake. There would be no, could be no end to the fullness and delight she felt. She willed it to be so, but the bottle emptied, and she fell backward onto the grass, her skirt lifted to her thighs, and her chest heaving as the bees flitted in and out of her vision, the roar reduced to a humming that would not leave her.
“Oh,” she said and darted a tongue over the sweetness that still clung to her lips.
“Oh,” she whispered again, the bees rising and falling like a shadow in the night. The girl brought a hand to her collar, tore at the fabric there until her throat was bare, her breastbone exposed. The maiden in the trees. A creature to be discovered or stolen upon, her nakedness intended for anyone but herself.
This is how they had discovered witches, how they knew to boil them so that their spirits may not rise again to haunt the living. Girls in the forest who had become lore.
She did not hear the heavy tread of footsteps, did not see when the shadow of the bees bent and changed into something with very straight, white teeth.
The hand that cupped her cheek was cool, and it startled her awake, but the wine had done its work. Her tongue and mind had gone thick and all she could do was roll her eyes toward the stranger.
“What have you done?”
The voice was slow and even, the regal, dulcet tones, not of a prince but of a princess. The shadows in which she walked glittered in the falling sun.
“My mother…” the girl began.
“She is gone. And you.”
“You are alone here.” The phantom hand descended, curved its palm against the top of the girl’s breast before trailing back up to her lips and away. To taste.
“Wine to set the world ablaze. It has always been so for young woman who long for other things,” the voice said, and the drone of the bees rose and fell behind.
“Yes,” the girl said, but still, she could not see the princess’ eyes, the delicate curve of her mouth, how it must have lifted into a sneer to see the girl this way. So coarse. Common.
But the princess stopped, she bent to speak to the girl who had once carried plums but now would be nothing more than a womb, and if not that, suspicious and meant to be burned.
“What would you have, child? The thing of which you have always dreamed.”
Tiny mouths, legs, crept over the girl’s arms and cheeks. The bees finding their way to the lingering sweetness on her lips to reclaim what had been stolen from them. Their droning rose and fell like breath, and the earth seemed hollow beneath her as the bees clung to her skin.
The girl drew a single breath, and the princess bent to hear, to pluck the air from her lungs.
“To be…” The girl could not continue, could not pull that need from the secret parts of her, and her hands fluttered at her neck, her hair, trying to show the princess how a crown or a necklace would sit upon her, but it didn’t matter. The princess understood. She knew the dark needs of a girl’s heart.
Already, the bees had found the soft parts of the girl’s lips, her tongue, her throat, their venom at work, their wings slowing as the girl’s blood slowed, and the princess dipped her head even lower. If anyone had seen, they would have observed two women leaned into one another as if for a kiss, but there were only the bees, and the princess, and the girl who wished for a world beyond.
The princess’ voice purred with the movement of hundreds of tiny wings. “I was not looking for you, did not think that I could ever find someone who I would want as my equal. I did not mean to stay here long. This is not my kingdom, but there you were, and I could not bring myself to leave without you. Your stained hands, how they passed over the fruit. How careful you were! How I longed to taste the stillness you carry within you, how you carried it with you even into your mother’s house where you dreamed. You did not know that I was there, but I heard you, how you sometimes whispered of a prince. Of love. I fell in love with the silence you contained when he drew you away — the man with the plums — how he tried to take from you what was not his. Not his, but mine. And so I kept him from you. He didn’t understand why he could not crush you beneath him, why he could not touch you in the way he had dreamed, but it was your quiet, how it leaked out of you and into the air, so unlike buzzing, that kept me from tearing out his tongue in that exact moment. He understood, even then, that I had found him, and he was afraid.”
The girl’s skin burned, crawled as the bees became one entity, the roaring transforming the voice of the princess whose eyes — she could see them now — were the color of early sunlight, of honey when it is harvested.
“I knew you would look elsewhere for your plums, and I pressed myself into their flesh, left behind just enough to slow and then stop the heart. To free you from the burden of carrying that fruit, of being a vessel, and I knew, too, that you would return to me, and so I waited, offered a thing I imagined you would want. I poured myself into that sweetness, too. So that you would taste and know me, how my blood sang for you. A girl who could not understand her own loveliness.”
The girl twitched, her eyes seeking the light that had vanished, but there were only the eyes of the princess, only the sound of her voice and the humming of thousands of wings.
“Open your mouth, love,” the princess said. “Open to me, and I will pour myself into you and make you what you wish. I will cover you in glittering stones, and you will sit beside me and there will be those who kneel before us and tremble. You will not be a princess, but a queen, and I will worship you in ways you could not imagine.”
The girl could not speak, but a single tear slipped over her cheek, her head nodding almost imperceptibly, and it was enough.
The bees rose to their work, their shadow falling over the girl like a great beast, and the night wore on, the stars faceless and cold.
In the morning, the sun touched the girl’s still body. A few bees still clung to her lips, which had frozen in the beginning of a smile or a gasp or a prayer.
The morning dew laid on the girl’s throat, nestled and glittering along her collarbone as many jewels and glowing in her hair as a living crown.