The Thistle Dancer
Raindrops pattered upon the stone window sill. Droplets glazed the panes of the Grand Library as my nine year old eyes peered out towards the moorlands.
My breath fogged the glass so I wiped it with my ash grey sleeve and stared out again at the rolling grass pelted with rain. White sheep harried themselves towards shelter as the dog encouraged them on, shepherd boy in tow.
How I envied them with their freedom to roam and view the open countryside! Little did I know how the thorns matted their wool nor how the stench of the animals nestled within the shepherd boy’s clothes. I took for granted the drafty shelter of the Grand Library and the comfort of tucking myself inside my flannel dress.
Despite my envy, I was the one privileged with better views. On good days I could make out the edge of the castle ruins and even the rocky crags against the ocean. And if I perched myself in the corner, at the very edge of the window seat, I could see the thistle field.
The grandfather oak still presided over the banished field as it had for hundreds of years. Even with the fog, the field tinged purple. I had often read the story of the lost princess and her final edict that the field be planted with thistles, then utterly abandoned.
“You ready to go home, sweetie?”
Mother stood over me with bag and bundle in hand; tired eyes whispered of her long day writing. I gathered my doll from the window seat and stuffed my shawl into my canvas bag.
We walked past the old books guarded by cases of dark mahogany. Carved ceilings arched high over the main staircase. Centuries of memory were encased within the Grand Library, and yet few ever bothered to visit. What did the wall builders care about the politics of history? Or the antiquated family rivalry that meted them out?
For myself, the thick balconies with their delicate banisters defending rows of books and shelves never ceased to amaze me. Above the staircase, a carved image of Sagia playing her harp watched over all.
Stepping upon the marble portico, Mother took my hand. Rain drizzled from the sky and dripped off sooty eaves as we hurried homeward. Stained glass of the Cathedral shone, despite the rain. I stared up into the story pictures as we passed. Footsteps wove daintily through the streets as we avoided puddles and bastions of mud.
We made sure to stamp our shoes clean on the brick before climbing the outer wood stairs to our flat. Mother’s hand gripped tighter.
I smiled as I passed our neighbor’s lower window. The youngest stared back blankly with a mouth full of food.
“Well hi, Mieri! How are you today!”
“I’m good; how are you, Sensi?”
Sensi leaned out the window above ours almost as far as she could. Dry hair wisped about her face while her faded dress soaked up water from the sill.
Mother released my hand to unbolt our door and I stretched to wave goodbye. Sensi waved back and we went inside.
We put away our wet things and busied ourselves about supper. I set the table.
“Can I visit the thistle field with you this year?”
Mother stirred the red stew, not looking up.
Every spring Mother would visit the thistle field and harvest the young leaves and stems. We’d eat thistle with dinner for a week.
I smiled and straightened her chair. Mother’s chair at the table had a seat back while I had only a stool. She always said I didn’t need one and that I had to learn to sit up straight.
Mother ladled out stew. I chewed my potatoes. After dinner, I dried the dishes. Then I changed out of my flannel dress, and Mother helped me wash. After she washed, I curled up in her lap while she read proverbs.
“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.”
“The rich and the poor meet together; the Lord is the maker of them all.”
I snuggled into my cot.
“Sweet dreams, Mieri.”
“Sweet dreams, Mother.”
She sat in her chair by the window and read as the last light of evening faded over the city. I drifted into dreamland and forgot all the present world.
“Don’t touch the iron, Mieri.”
Five irons gathered ‘round the fire collecting heat. I gestured towards the furthest one.
Sweat crowned Mother’s blushed face as she starched Lady Dalrimple’s gown. Her hands pulsated red like slowly baked apples.
She didn’t see the glow of red and she reached for it.
Her hot hand grasped the hot iron. Burn penetrated the already hot rag and her hand released.
Rag and iron fell like fruit and leaves. Mama grabbed a fresh cloth with her spare hand and heaved the iron to the hearthstone. Lady Dalrimple’s gown was untouched. The floor was dented.
Mama sat and placed her palm against her mouth and tongue. Cheeks squinched. I scurried to the washbowl and brought it to her.
“Thank you, darling.”
Eyelids closed, she soaked her scalded flesh in the water until the expression of pain dripped away from her face.
“Do you still want to go to the thistle field?”
“Well, let’s go then.”
Mother stood slowly. Her tired hands gathered the irons to cool. She’d have to finish Lady Dalrimple’s dress on the ‘morrow.
I found the basket and shawl. Mother made me wear my bonnet.
Carrying the basket with my left hand, I pulled the bonnet strings with my right. I disliked wearing it; my hair could never feel the wind.
Our alleyways never got enough wind. When ocean storms would gust, we were shielded by the tenement buildings, which leaned together like bickering old women. Cooking stench clung amongst them. Old Hartford took most of the beating.
“Stop fussing, Mieri.”
Mother took my hand from my bonnet string as we mingled between the shadowed houses. Slowly our footsteps took us past the old half-wall of Hartford.
“Will we not go through the market, Mother?”
She shook her head. Clatter, voices, and din echoed. I’d only been there once, and that was with the Dearlings.
The outer wall stood high above us. Light flashed in my eyes from the armor of the watchmen. The white limestone of the new, upper wall twinkled. The old wall rested sturdy and grey among the common people who thronged by the gate. I buried my head against Mother and hugged my basket as we shuffled through.
Passing out of the city, I breathed a sigh of relief and opened my eyes. Green moss blanketed the abandoned cottages of the old village. Circles of stones enclosed sheep and their lambs; frisky ewes who were too little to go out and graze. The mother sheep watched us passively while the little ones sniffed and stared and flicked their ears. I stared back at them, fascinated.
Mother and I stepped carefully; I could feel pebbles through the thin soles of my shoes. Her steps wound us about twisting paths. She kept looking back at the city, only to circle another mossy cottage.
Grey clouds drifted over us, disguising our shadows. Their presence was a shelter as we stepped out on the old main road. Mother’s hand grasped tighter.
The dirt road led towards the old castle ruin. Ramparts rose where towers fell. The great keep was scarred black from lightning and fire. Four hundred years since the storm, and even surrounded by rubble, its majesty remained undeniable.
Before my feet knew, we came upon the thistle field. Stone-piled boundaries hedged in the fierce plants. Some grew close to the ground. Others towered above me. Mother pulled out the canvas satchel and the cutting blades.
We gathered tufts of seeds and chopped tender leaves for cooking. I did what I could to keep from getting pricked. Thorns jabbed and tore at the hems of our dresses. As we cut our way into the field, Mother picked a few tender shoots to chop and peel. I sliced the leaves nearest the ground and together we made a clearing in the forest of spines.
The sun had broken through now and our backs were dripping with heat. Blue sky opened wide above us. I could barely see the ruins over the tufted blooms; Hartford, not at all. Silent peace reigned as we piled sharp leaves and stuffed seeds inside the canvas.
It was then I heard it: the quiet clarion of a horn with a slow melody. I looked up from my work towards the travelers’ tree - the ancient, grandfather oak in the center of the field.
Air glistened like gold. Wind rushed the oak tree even as our clearing in the thistle field remained heavy and still. Two figures and another form floated gently down, beside the oak tree.
As soon as they stopped, the clarion song of the horn changed and the two figures rose again. Gold light danced about them and they quickly disappeared. The third form remained, a noble chestnut horse.
I dropped my knife, pushed my bonnet off, and broke out into a run.
Mother followed after me as I reached the steed. I extended my open hand before it and it snorted, as if to declare independence from human-folk. The beast was fitted with a fine bridle and saddle. The leather shone, as did its well groomed chestnut coat.
I waited and stared with patience until my arm got tired. It stared back at me with curious mistrust, unsurprising behavior for an animal only recently introduced to a new planetary world.
Lowering my outstretched hand, my heart leaned closer. How I longed to pet and feel that the nose of the creature connected to its ears, which in turn led to a long, brushed mane draped over a lordly neck, indented with the developed muscles of a well-postured, majestic creature.
It stepped towards me.
Long, dignified legs lifted daintily over the spiny ground until I could feel its warm breath peaceably intermingle with mine.
Our eyes spoke so intently, I didn’t even notice my hand reach to pet its nose until I felt the warm velvet beneath my nine year old palm.
“Father of Lights,” Mother whispered softly behind me.
My new friend maintained its gaze into me as Mother approached and gently stroked its mane. A gleaming metal embellishment crowned its forehead.
“Prince,” Mother read. “So that’s your name.”
My right hand joined the left in petting Prince’s whiskered chin.
Thunder clapped over the ocean. Prince whinnied.
“Take his bridle, Mieri. We haven’t much time.” Mother looped the reins about my arms which stretched higher towards Prince’s ears. He lowered his head and leaned his neck into me. I clung to Prince’s neck, wrapping his mane about my fingers. Frantically, Mother unbuckled the saddlebags and started digging. She let out a surprised gasp.
I opened my eyes in time to see Mother lift a brass straight horn from the saddle bag.
“For such a time as this...” she whispered. She looked at me furtively. “It’s one of the instruments,” she explained.
My eyes widened; my legs tensed.
“And it’s dented,” she said, frowning. The bell of the horn was grievously misshapen.
“Maybe Saul can fix it,” I suggested.
“Mr. Dearling, sweetie,” Mother corrected me.
Prince lifted his head and shook his ears. I wrapped my fists under my chin and stared at his hooves. Reins still looped about me. Prince started sniffing at my ears.
“Come on. This is all we need.”
Mother rearranged her bags. Dark grey clouds hovered fresh and thick. Prince snorted and pawed with his feet. I leaned against his side. Mother fidgeted until she was ready to walk.
She snatched the reins from me and began leading Prince towards the road. I whimpered.
“You want to lead him?”
She thrust the reins to me.
“We have to walk quickly.”
I followed Mother between the thistle spines back to our harvest clearing. The ground leaves clutched and tore my dress. We kept on walking.
I picked up my basket and Mother stored my knife. I looked for my bonnet until I realized it was hanging down my back. I smiled and petted Prince, thankful I didn’t have to wear it yet.
Thunder clapped and stomped again.
As we made our way to the road, Prince carefully picked his footsteps around the tall plants. When we finally came through, Mother looked right, then left, before hurriedly crossing.
“Come on, Mieri.”
As we came to the outskirts of the old village, I realized for the first time that we’d have to let Prince go. A knot twisted itself in my throat, and I gripped the rein in my fist tighter. Hot tears started dripping down my face. Prince nuzzled my ear, almost as if he knew something was wrong.
The woebegone stone shelters cluttered near each other. Mother searched the roofed cottages amongst the gathering.
“Here. This will do.”
She set her bags down and started undoing the buckle of Prince’s saddle.
“Do we have to say goodbye?”
“Yes, Mieri. Do you really think we can keep him?”
Hot tears rained again. I hugged Prince’s chest as his neck embraced me. Mother lifted off Prince’s saddle and heaved it into the cottage.
Prince’s body fluttered and his tail flicked his side where the seat once was. Mother folded up the saddle blanket and set it inside.
“Come on, Mieri.”
She started in on his bridle, unbuckled it, and lifted it over his ears. I finally let go of his head. He raised it up and he shook his ears uninhibited. Then he lowered down to me and let me pet his cheeks again.
I clung to the moment like I clung to him. Hot horse breath rippled against the torn edges of my dress. Both our eyes were closed trying to capture the last of the moment.
“Here you are, darling.”
Mother put her knife in the same hand as the bridle and handed me the shiny metal nameplate.
“I don’t want to say goodbye.”
“I know.” She wrapped the reins up with the now unnamed bridle and set it on the blanket inside the cottage. “I don’t either.”
Her lips folded in as her cheeks pinched near her eyes. I thought I saw her eyes start to water so mine rushed to hide sight first.
Prince pawed the ground and puffed great hot breaths into my ear. I lifted my eyes open, took his face in my hands, and wished with all my might to remember the gleam in his eyes.
My eyes filled with tears again. Prince flicked his left ear.
Mother stroked his neck, then turned to pick up her bags. I let go of him as Mother lifted the last bag. I picked up my basket. Slowly, we started walking, between the stone piles, back towards Hartford.
Prince stood quietly, watching as we walked away. His rich coat was his only decoration now. He seemed so plain in front of the moss-eaten stone. And yet his elegance was undeniable.
Our footsteps wove between the old piles of stone and I had to turn away. Prince could no longer be seen.
Mother’s pace quickened briskly as she glanced at the sky. I did my best to match my footsteps with hers.
The knot tightened in my throat. I forced myself to sob until it released.
We were out of the old village when my short gasps slowed to a stop. I stretched my lungs out until my breaths finally started to come easy again.
As I followed Mother towards the great wall of Old Hartford, my mind lit upon something.
“I met a Prince today.”
She smiled. She wiped a quiet tear away from her face and looked down at me. With torn dresses, scratched hands, and heavy eyes, we were a sad pair.
“Yes, you did, Mieri. You certainly did.”