A short piece inspired by ‘The Maiden Without Hands’ – a poem by Anne Sexton, itself inspired by ‘The Handless Maiden’ fairy tale.
Crow perches on the sill of the open window, staring out at the seething expanse of oaks.
In the garden below, a minstrel sits beside an espaliered pear tree, fingers dancing over the strings of a lute. His mouth moves but I cannot hear the words.
Crow is blocking them for me.
He knows how much I hate the song the minstrel must be singing – the one about the king who saved the handless maiden – the miller’s daughter who came with twigs and bracken in her hair – a woman whose purity could only be witnessed by a man with a noble heart.
By the king, my husband.
The king who saved my life, who took me in from the forest, who gave me food, shelter, honour, love; who made for me these shining silver hands to turn my stumps into something beautiful. Shouldn’t I be grateful? Why I should I care so much that their song fixes me to a single virtue? Let them have it, if it helps them better voice my husband’s beneficence.
Something creaks in the room behind me: the desk, perhaps, or the floorboards beneath the carpet.
A bone china cup sits upon a saucer, beside a high-backed leather chair. Inside the cup, a pool of cold tea holds the beige reflection of the bookcase behind. Sometimes I feel I am living in a still-life.
Crow shuffles beside me, his small black crown-feathers standing on end. A moment later, wind pours over the forest, making the oaks sway and shiver.
‘Storm coming,’ Crow says, mind to mind.
His voice is flat, but I’ve known him long enough to understand this as an invitation. I lean out the window and take in the scent of wet soil on the autumn wind.
The minstrel sees me. Has my wolfish sniffing thrown his song off-kilter? I cannot help but grin.
I cut off my ear with a shard of window glass, in a dream the night I heard that song. When I woke, my hearing was dampened. A fortnight later it was gone.
‘I will give you a crow,’ my husband said. ‘And you will hear just as well.’
He was wrong though. Some things I hear not at all, like the sound of a damp cloth, squeaking oil into my silver hands. Like the stately clop of heels on stone as we go about the castle, making pleasantries with the dukes. And like the minstrel outside, singing sweetness into my name.
But there are other things I hear better than anyone else: the pulse of fish moving through the moat; a wren sipping water from the leaf of a fallen birch; the sound of a stag beetle marching over an open book.
Crow knows what I need to hear. He knows what sustains me, and knows also what it is I sustain.
‘Won’t be long now,’ he says, shifting his gaze to my belly.
He could mean that it won’t be long before others find out about the child growing in me, or he could mean it won’t be long before the storm breaks over our sugar-cube lives. Usually he means both, and more.
‘What shall I do, Crow? I am not myself.’
He does not answer, not with words. He just turns his attention back to the forest, wipes his beak on the sill, then flies off over the canopy, toward the darkening clouds.