Gown Garnet Chain

Gown Garnet Chain by Christine Boyer

There once was a girl who lived with her parents.  She was named Bella, and since she was just a girl, she was often left alone.  She spent her days wandering through the house and the garden, but was never able to go beyond the garden wall, despite the yearning she felt for the forest and lands beyond.

Because she was often alone, she sometimes saw what others did not.  She explored her small world, and she soon knew every hidden nook in the house.  She knew where her mother hid her letters.  She knew where her father kept his keys, to the house and money-cask and other important locks.

Bella’s father was a rich man, and he was desperate for a son – the one thing his money could not buy.  He tormented his wife every year that passed without an heir.  Bella’s mother prayed and made offerings, but her desperation grew with every moon that swelled and then ebbed in the night sky.  Only Bella noticed it:  instead of blossoming with fecundity, her mother became bloodless and brittle, as if her spirit waned with each sibling that failed to take root.

In time, her mother died.  Bella’s father cast off his black crepe the moment the sod was placed over the coffin.  He sent out word that he was looking for a new wife, and after a time and some negotiations, one was procured.  The wedding feast was planned for a month hence.

Bella’s father came to her one day and thrust an armful of cloth at her.

“Clean this,” he ordered her.  “So that I may give it to my new wife.”

It was her mother’s gown, a rich red brocade woven with gold.  Bella shook it out and smelled her mother’s ghost, the dusty scent of rose petals and brackish salt of tears.  She daubed at the spots and brushed it out until it gleamed like freshly spilled blood for her new stepmother.

Bella’s father came to her another day and thrust a piece of jewelry at her.

“Clean this,” he ordered her.  “So that I may give it to my new wife.”

It was her mother’s garnet, a rich red stone set in gold.  Bella brushed off the layer of dust and saw her mother’s ghost, the wan face and sad eyes in the flat surface of the gem.  She polished the stone until it gleamed like the sun sinking beneath the hills for her new stepmother.

Bella’s father came to her another day and thrust a length of chain at her.

“Clean this,” he ordered her, though he didn’t give her a reason why.

Bella scrubbed the chain with sand until the rust fell away.  The chain was so thin and cunningly wrought that, once clean, it was nearly as invisible as a spider’s web.  She tested it in her hands and found it to be stronger than iron despite its gossamer quality.

The day of the wedding feast came.  Bella expected her new stepmother to be a woman grown, but the girl who trembled under the snowy lace veil was scarcely older than her.  She wept throughout the wedding ceremony and feast.  She wept that night and in the days that followed.

One day soon after, the stepmother approached Bella.  She wore the rich brocade gown and the gleaming garnet ring, but she didn’t look like Bella’s mother.  She looked like a girl playing dress-up.

In a small voice, she begged her new step-daughter to help her escape.  Bella pointed to the door and told her that the path from it led to the garden, then the forest and, beyond that, another land.  Escape was no big thing.  It was one step and then another, out the door and down the path until one found themselves safely away.

But her stepmother shook her head and lifted the hem of her skirt to reveal her slender ankle.  There was the chain that Bella had cleaned for her father – the cunningly wrought one, thin as a spider’s web.  It held the step-mother fast.

Bella thought it over for three days and three nights.  She remembered her mother in her final days, bloodless and brittle.  Already her stepmother was paler than when she arrived.  Bella often saw what others did not, and she knew that if this stepmother went to the grave, her father would find another and then another, until he extracted a son from one of them.

She waited until her father left for a journey, and she took his keys from their hiding spot.  Bella unlocked the chain from her stepmother’s ankle.  Bella then unlocked the money-cask and lade her stepmother with enough gold to see her safely away and settled in comfort elsewhere.  She had no ill will for her, after all, though some girls do, in stories such as these.

Her stepmother turned to leave, but then paused.  “Come with me,” she told Bella.

“I cannot,” Bella replied sadly.  “I cannot go beyond the garden wall.”

Her stepmother looked at her with pity.  “You have the key,” she remarked, and when Bella only looked at her blankly, her stepmother took the ring of keys and knelt before her.  Bella often saw what others did not, but she did not see everything.  It wasn’t until her stepmother unlocked the tiny clasp on her own ankle that Bella finally saw the gossamer chain that held her.

So Bella was at last able to journey beyond the garden wall, and when she did, it was at the side of her young stepmother, both finally free from the chains that had bound them.

About the Author

  1. Avatar Christine Boyer (1 story )

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    Christine Boyer has been published in “the Little Patuxent Review,” “the Tahoma Literary Review,” “October Hill Magazine,” and “So It Goes: the Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library.” She is a graduate writing student with Harvard University Extension School and lives in Massachusetts.

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