Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.
Long ago, a young king, having gone abroad in the guise of a peasant, more for his amusement than his edification, wandered off the beaten path and plunged into a wood in search of meat and drink.
He was soon rewarded for his foolhardy courage with a whiff of vapor-freshened air, and then, in another half-league or so, with the silver voice of a swift-moving stream. The swiftness might have given him pause, since he was as far from the mountains as one could get in this kingdom, but the prince was too thirsty to reflect upon that.
He cupped the water in his hands, as any gentleman would, at first, and when the depth of his need was revealed to him, he went in face first and slurped like a common cur. Nothing had ever satisfied him as much.
The king was in a water-induced reverie when he saw her—a young woman, perhaps his own age, perhaps older. She quickly slipped behind a tree, her shabby gown blinking once as she disappeared.
The hunt was on. His blood was up. The king didn’t pause to consider whether the maid was frightened of him, or whether she was maid at all. His inclination was to give chase.
She sprang from her tree, bolted over a grassy mound, and splashed across the stream, falling and dragging herself up the opposite bank. The king followed, and soon came upon her, upright and leaning against the trunk of a massive oak.
Her eyes were wide open, and from her pallor, and the state of her dress, which was badly torn and thin enough to show her knobby knees, he surmised that she was half-starved.
For the first time since he’d ventured beyond his castle walls, the king was sorry he had. The adventure he’d imagined didn’t include discovering a maid, especially one such as this.
She blinked her somber eyes at him. Her chest rose and fell beneath filthy rags.
“Do you know who I am?” the king asked.
The maid stared at him. He wondered at her boldness in not answering at once.
“What is your name?”
She lowered herself to a cushion of moss at the foot of the tree and wrapped her arms around her bare legs.
The king looked around him for assistance, from habit. But there was nothing and no one, only thick woods and occasional scurrying sounds from within and around the trees. He considered walking away as though he had never seen her; he didn’t know what held him there.
The king found that her eyes mastered him in a manner he did not comprehend.
“Where are your people?”
She reached out her arms and opened and closed her hands in a way that suggested to him she would have his cloak. And when the king removed the garment and held it out to her, she took it, and lay down, covering her own soiled flesh with it.
For three days the king fed her water from his own hands, kept her warm with his cloak, and sang to her the songs he had learned at his nurse’s knee, that good woman who would have been more astonished than anyone to find her former charge attending to the needs of another.
At dawn on the fourth day, the maid sat up. The cloak fell to her waist as she reached for the leg of rabbit the king held out for her.
“You must tell me who you are?” he said, thinking that she might very well be what rather than who.
She held the meat between her hands, as a squirrel handles an acorn, and smiled dumbly. The king sat down beside her, unaware that he twinned her manner of sitting.
“Now that you’re feeling better, you must tell me who you are, or at least where you came from.”
The maid nibbled on the rabbit leg, soundlessly.
It was in that moment that the king decided to end his forest sojourn for good. He wanted nothing more than a hearty supper, a great silver goblet of wine, and his lover’s bed. The filthy maid, dumb and of unknown origin, was not fit to return with him. He beamed his false reassurance with a smile. She returned the smile, and he saw that her fathomless eyes held light.
It was only a matter of stepping away. She could keep the cloak.
The maid picked at the bone with her teeth, in the manner of a doe nibbling grass, not at all like a ravening creature. When she appeared satisfied that no meat was left, she lowered her hands to her lap and fixed her eyes on the king. He hoped that she would speak, but she did not.
He wanted only to turn and quickly regain the road home, but found that he could not leave her. There was something there—not helplessness nor boldness—something older, deeper, darker, fairer, that made him want to crush her to his own breast, in a gesture both wild and tender. Never before had anyone stirred such a feeling in him, a feeling not bounded by love, hate, desire, or anything he knew.
“Are you well enough to journey?”
The king pried the leg bone from her hands and threw it away. Then he raised her to her feet, slowly. She trembled at first, and then appeared to take strength from him as he held her. When he sensed that she was steady enough, the king led her forward for several steps.
“If you are, I’ll take you to my castle. It’s not a long way, as the crow flies, but it will be several days before we see the turrets through the trees.”
The king ordered servants to bathe and dress the maid and then sought his bride in her chamber. He seldom went to her, except to pay her the respect that was her due, the maintenance of her dignity. He hoped the freshly washed maid would soon keep her company, freeing him to keep his elsewhere.
He took precautions to have the maid tutored in the artful manners of a courtier, and plumped with sweets and meat, before releasing her into the company of his bride. When the hour of introduction arrived, he endeavored to do the thing himself.
“Look what I have brought for you, my love.”
The queen was draped in an indigo sheath that caught light along the curvature of her thighs. She dropped her smile upon spying the maid. “What is that?”
The king led the maid to a low seat from where the queen could clearly survey the offering. “She was abandoned. I found her during my wandering—half dead.”
The queen smiled at the king, but any warmth in it failed to reach him. “A maid for a present,” she mused. “And she is mine? I may do anything I like with her?”
The king quickly disabused her of such a notion. “She is a poor soul in need of care.”
The queen leaned forward and ran her fingers through the maid’s dark hair. “She’s not hideous. I wonder what defect in her led to her abandonment.” She paused. “And I wonder what made you believe I would want her?”
All this time, the maid sat quietly on the seat, her back bent slightly, her eyes staring straight ahead, seeming not to listen to either speaker, until the queen addressed her directly. “I think I’ve seen you before…once.”
The maid said nothing, but she fixed her dark eyes on the queen’s, and her lips curled a little at the corners.
“Ah ha,” warbled the queen. There’s a spirit inside her.”
The king kneeled across from the maid and looked into her eyes.
“What do you see?” said the queen.
The king dared not tell his bride the truth—in one of the maid’s storm cloud eyes he saw himself as child, left to cry himself to sleep; in the other, he appeared old, weakened, gasping for air. He said, “I see—”
“Witch? Nymph? Your mad sister?” The queen twitched with laughter. Then, without another word, she retreated along the hall, lifting as she did so her sheath to show the form beneath, the snow of her bare skin to compare with the cherry of the king’s cheek.
The king rallied his wits, took the maid by the hand, and retreated to his lover’s quarters.
The bed curtains parted as soon as the king bolted the heavy door from the inside. A smooth, brown nose jutted through.
“I’ve brought someone,” said the king
The king’s lover showed his face through the curtains. His eyes were wide as he stared at the wisp of a maid at the king’s side. “What is that?”
“You mean, who is that? You’re beginning to sound like the queen.”
The lover stepped down from the bed to reveal two firm, shapely legs, and a torso bare except for a strip of linen tied at the waist.
The king let go of the maid and took his lover’s hands in his own. “I found her in the woods—alone. She was abandoned.” He sighed and waited for his lover’s affirmation of his heroics.
“Why do you still have it?”
“Don’t speak if you’re going to be cruel.” The king knew how to assert his authority when necessary, and defending his decision to save the maid felt necessary, though he struggled to comprehend why.
“She was starved, likely beaten, and perhaps—“ he hesitated to say it—“defiled. Where is your heart?”
Somewhat chastened, and in need of the king’s comforting arms, the lover refined his notes. Stepping toward her, he placed the palm of one hand against the maid’s cheek. “So soft, for a peasant. Like milk. Or water.” He stroked her neck with both palms. “She’s lovely. What’s her name?
“I don’t know. She doesn’t speak.”
“Marvelous!” cried the lover. “We can imagine all sorts of things—she’s a creature of the woods, a mythical beast, a spirit—a sprite!” He pinched the girl’s cheeks and then threw himself on the bed and roared like a lion.
The king was unnerved to discover that the depth of his desire to protect the maid seemed greater than his need to soothe his lover.
The lover rolled onto his back and tore off the strip of linen. He tossed it at the king. “I knew you’d lose your wits out there in the woods.”
“Be decent, for her sake.”
“Get rid of her—for my sake!”
“Where will she go?”
“Wherever the wind takes her.” The lover pulled the king, whose limbs had loosened along with his will, into bed.
The maid lay on the floor and went to sleep.
Morning came, and the king awakened to find the maid naked as a plucked peahen, her breasts as aroused as the ears of a dog, stroking the hairs on his chest. His first impulse was to lie still and enjoy the sensation, but he soon came to his senses.
“What?” called the lover. “Where are you going?”
But the king was too busy dressing the maid, and his own skin, to pay heed.
The lover lifted the sheet to reveal his desire. Again, he said, “Where are you going?”
The king didn’t know where he was going. He only knew that he must breathe some other air, alone. And alone meant something new.
“Wait for me,” cried the lover, but the king took the maid by the hand and unbolted the door. They moved lightly and swiftly through a narrow passage, down stairs, down more stairs, and through the great castle doors.
As he walked with the maid into the world beyond the castle walls, in the direction of the wood where he first found her, the king muttered to himself: “By what right did I enfold this creature within my own home, my own bosom? Who am I to go abroad, wandering hither and yon, casting my net into the sea of being and dragging in whatever thing caught there? What manner of thing have I caught?”
For days he walked, the maid at his side, silent yet present, her companionship no longer a burden on him, as if he had carved her from bone or wood with his own hands, breathed life into her, and pulled her into his.
Surely, he had not.
Sooner than the king expected, he heard the silver voice of the swift-moving stream from which he, once, greedily drank. Then they came upon the midden of rabbit bones and the place where he had fed her. The king knew not what came next.
“Go where you will,” he said to the maid, to the wind, to the water.
The maid embraced him. He held onto her as firmly as she held him. Then she let go and gestured for him to follow her.
They had walked a league when then the maid stepped forward and dropped into a hidden spring, vanishing into the velvet depth of it.
The king jumped forward and reached out with his hand, but he grasped nothing. He searched for her, expecting to see froth where life fought to prevail, but the surface was a looking glass.
For one brief spell, he thought he saw her pale face, the two dark eyes like stones, the hair a mass of stirring weed. Then she disappeared, and in her stead the king found the planes and contours of his own face reflected in the deep pool.
And though, ever afterward, the king would appear to adore his own reflection, interminably, in truth, it was not so.