Story-a-Day May comes to an end! I have things I want to write about the experience, but I’m tired. I’ve managed today’s final story, and that’s all I can do.
The prompt was to write about a writer. Oi! Well, I decided to write a fairytale about a writer. Sort of. If you know your fairytales, you should see where I took inspiration. Like everything else shared this month, this story is rough. It’s longer than I wanted, so there’s plenty of room for mistakes. Thanks for reading anyway. Thanks for coming by throughout the month, whether it was once or a dozen times. Thanks for cheering me on. It’s been fun (if mad).
Once upon time, there was a poor miller’s daughter who spent her days carrying or heading to market. She did whatever needed to be done to keep bread on the table and her father happy.
Her walks into town took her buy the grandest house in the village. As far as the miller’s daughter was concerned, it was the grandest house in the world.
She’d never seen anything to compare. Sometimes she stopped, rested her basket of goods on her hip, and peered through the wrought iron gate, and if whoever lived in the house had their candles lit, she could glimpse inside the room overlooking the garden. It was a library and it was beautiful.
Truth be told, the miller’s daughter didn’t know what the room was. She’d seen only a few books in the whole of her life and hadn’t known so many of such things could be in one place and there be still more books out in the world. She loved the look of them.
She longed to wander through the vibrant room and run her fingers along the shelves. “Why, I could spend an eternity in there,” she said to herself. “I could even teach myself to read. And then I know everything in all those books!”
One late fall day her father had given her permission to leave her chores and visit the holiday fair taking place in the heart of the village. He hoped, though he didn’t say, she might catch the eye of a gentleman looking for a healthy, hard-working wife. The miller knew next to nothing about how to find a daughter a husband, so he trusted chance and the festive atmosphere of holidays fairs. He’d even let his daughter wear a new ribbon in her hair.
As excited as the miller’s daughter was to attend the fair and perhaps dance with a charming lad or two, she paused at the grand house and peered through the gate.
“Like books, do you?”
The question scared the girl and she spun around to see a woman standing beside her. “I beg your pardon, ma’am. I just can’t help but look. It’s beautiful, it is.” The miller’s daughter had never seen a woman dress as this woman dressed. She wore a dress slightly out of fashion but very elegant. And most shockingly of all, a writing quill stuck out from her carelessly, bundled up hair.
The woman smiled. “Why don’t you come in and see them up close?”
“Oh, I couldn’t impose, ma’am.”
“Nonsense. What is a book if there’s no one to admire it? Come.”
The miller’s daughter didn’t know what to do. She certainly could refuse the lady of such a house. The impertinence! But surely if the woman understood that she was but a miller’s child, she’d think twice before inviting her in through the front door as a regular guest. But to point this out would mean to correct the woman, and that would simply not do. Who was she to correct a lady?
When the woman undid the latch of the front gate, the miller’s daughter noted the black stains on the woman’s hands. Ink. It had to be ink. And the girl, filled with curiosity, followed the woman up the path and into the magnificent house.
The miller’s daughter had never walked on such carpets and in such a wide hall. She did her best to keep her amazement to herself, but she was a poor actress and the woman understood perfectly well. “Here we are,” she said, pushing open the heavy library doors. “My library. With all the books I could gather but with many more to gather still.”
Wide-eyed, the miller’s daughter walked to the center of the room. “What do you call this place?”
“A library, my dear girl. Would you like to read one of the books? I wouldn’t mind at all.”
“Oh! I would!” The girl clasped her hands together. Then tears sprang to her eyes. “But I’m afraid, ma’am that I know not how to read.”
“Not a word?”
The girl hesitated. “I learned a verse from the holy book, ma’am. But I’ve not seen a word since.”
“I see. Then I must teach you.”
“But ma’am.” The miller’s daughter didn’t know how to argue with a lady. And though she was sure her father would be horrified, she wanted nothing more than to say yes.
“A pupil is just what I need. I won’t have you say no. You’ll come every day. And if your parents fuss—”
“It’s only my father, ma’am.”
“I see. Well, if your father fusses, I shall take care of it.”
“But my chores, ma’am.”
The woman waved her hand dismissively. “I have staff who can help. I’ll not hear another word against it. You must learn to read and that’s that.”
The girl’s heart soared. She forgot about the holiday fair and the lads she’d promised a dance. “When might we start, ma’am? I’ll start this minute if you wish.”
The woman laughed. “All right,” she said. “Let’s pick out your first book.” She pulled a silk cord along the wall and a moment alter a servant appeared. “Add more wood to the fire,” she said to the man, “and have the cook fix us dinner to have in the library. And don’t forget the wine.”
Perhaps this is a dream, the miller’s daughter thought. But I’ll not allow myself to wake.”
It was not a dream. And the miller’s daughter went every day to the grand house and sat for lessons. Her father had frowned but kept his misgivings to himself. How was his daughter to find a husband if she filled her head with written words? But he thought about the grand house and the woman who lived within, alone, with no family anyone had heard about. Perhaps if the woman took a liking to his daughter, she’d take her in as a daughter. Surely that would be better than marrying the butcher’s son or that rather lazy handsome shepherd so many of the girls eyed when errands took them across the fields.
His daughter loved her lessons. It took less time than she expected to understand all the marks on a page. Within a few months she was reading simple stories. And a short while later she read a novel, something she didn’t tell her father lest he be too shocked. Reading the holy book was one thing. A novellas something else all together.
On a lovely bright day, the miller’s daughter and the woman sat in the sunlight streaming in the window. “Ma’am, you’ve taught me how to put these marks together into meanings, and it is the most wonderful thing in the world. I can have adventure and affair after adventure and affair without getting up from this velvet seat, but there is one thing you have never explained.”
The woman laughed. “Don’t worry, dear girl. I have not kept any letter secret. And while surely there are more words than I can ever share, I’ve told you all I know.”
The girl nodded. “About reading, yes. You’ve taught me letter forms and sentence structures and cadence and meter. But it is as if you’ve taught me all the parts of a butterfly without explaining where the butterfly comes from.”
The woman’s smile changed. It didn’t quite disappear, but it froze around the edges. “Please explain yourself.”
“Where do these stories come from?”
“Why they’re written down.”
“A person, an ordinary person imagined and wrote these words? These characters? These places?”
“I thought you understood.” The woman picked up the book in front of them and opened it to the first page. She pointed. “There. The name. This person wrote this story.”
“Yes, but how? How could this one mind put all this together?”
The woman quietly closed the book and set it down between them. “A butterfly is beautiful whether or not you know how it came to be a butterfly. The same with a book.”
“But we can learn about the butterfly. It is, in fact, in one of your books. Ma’am.”
“That’s enough for today. It’s high time you got yourself home.”
The miller’s daughter stood. “Yes, ma’am.” She walked to the library door. “May we talk about this tomorrow?”
The woman drew a deep breath. “No. It is not for you. It is not what we agreed upon, and you shall not ask me again. Understood, dear girl?”
The miller’s daughter did not, but she nodded.
“Do you promise me,” the woman said, “not to ask again? To leave the mystery alone?”
The miller’s daughter hesitated.
“If you do not promise, the lessons end. And you will not return to the library.”
The woman meant what she said, and so the miller’s daughter agreed. “I promise.” But in her heart she didn’t.
A few weeks went by and together the woman and the girl read more magnificent books. Then one day shortly after the miller’s daughter arrived, the woman rushed into the library in her traveling coat. “I am sorry, my dear girl,” she said. “But I must go to the next village. I shall try to be home tonight, but if I am not, put things away as always and lock the door behind you.”
The girl nodded.
“I left a couple new novels out for you. Read to your heart’s content.” And with a quick wave she was gone.
The miller’s daughter had never been alone in the library for any length of time. She sat in her usual chair and chose one of the books. But after reading a few pages of an adventurous tale of a girl and several talking animals, the miller’s daughter put the book down.
In measured steps she walked to the woman’s desk and opened the top drawer. It took a calm search but finally, the miller’s daughter found paper. She picked up the quill and dipped it in the ink. She moved as if the quill might break. The first touch of the quill to paper caused a fat ink spot. The miller’s daughter uttered the first curse word she’d ever said in her life. Then she giggled.
Taking a deep breath, she tried again and made an awkward line. The drew another lone across the top. A “T.” “That’s good,” she whispered. She continued. Her letters were inelegant, with smudges and breaks. But in the end she had a few lines of what might be seen by a generous soul as a story. She wrote about a wolf and a red bird saving each other in the snow.
She read over her lines. The story made no sense. Why would the wolf help the bird and why wouldn’t the bird just fly away? Making a story, she realized, was going to be harder than she thought. The miller’s daughter tried again.
Before long she’d written pages of stories. And she couldn’t stop. The inkwell enver emptied and each time she lifted a page of paper, she found another white sheet waiting. She wrote all night. When the candle burned out, she wrote by the light of the moon. Her fingers ached. Her neck ached. She wrote and wrote. When the morning sunlight broke over the village, the miller’s daughter knew she
When the woman returned home and found her there, the woman screamed, but the miller’s daughter didn’t stop. The quill kept moving, stories kept coming, and the miller’s daughter could no longer look up. Days passed. The woman sat nearby and wept. The miller came with an ax, but he couldn’t bring himself to cut off his daughter’s hand. They let her write.
Her fingers began to bleed and the blood smeared alongside the ink. She continued to write. The woman grew old and died, and still the miller’s daughter wrote. Stories flooded the room. They spilled out into the hall and then out into the garden. Villagers sometimes walked by and picked a story up off the ground. Eventually the stories drifted like snowbanks in the streets. The villagers grew tired of papers littering their farms and clogging their wells.
They came and set fire to the grand house. The miller was long dead by then. All the paper, the books went up in flame. But the miller’s daughter continued to write. Every story is better than the last. Her stories have filled the world.