For Fiction Friday this week, I have another story-within-a-story from my NaNoWriMo novel. Within the novel, this story reveals quite a bit about how my lead character is currently feeling about her life and especially her love interest. Outside of the novel, it is, I hope 🙂 an entertaining Brothers Grimm-esque fairy tale.
The Girl Who Followed the Birds
This is a story about once upon a time in a mountain village. It was a small village where there lived simple people. They knew their mountains, they knew their business of goatherding and farming, and they knew each other. They knew very little else. In this village there lived a girl, who all her life had known how the rest of her life was likely to be. Her parents raised goats and a few crops like everyone else, and she did her part to help. Someday she would marry the boy who lived next door, and they would have their own cottage and their own goats and plot of farmland, and so would their children after them. It wasn’t that she had to marry the boy next door, but they had lived and played and grown together all their lives; she had always expected she would marry him one day, in an abstract sort of way. One spring morning when they were both sixteen, he offered her a cluster of blue mountain flowers and she looked into his blue eyes and the abstract became the very real and she knew that she didn’t only expect to marry him, she very much wanted to—someday.
It was a fall day when her sweetheart asked her to marry him, and he would have said that it was a perfect and beautiful day. It was also a day when the birds were in the village.
The village had as many birds as any other place, in the normal way, but once a year a great flock of brilliantly-colored blue birds would settle into the village. They flew in from the north, settled for a few days, and then flew away again to the south. They were never seen any other part of the year, and if they made the opposite journey in the spring, they didn’t stop in this particular mountain village on the way.
The girl’s sweetheart felt that it was a magical time, a time of change, and so the perfect time to suggest a marriage. He was wrong. Though he knew the girl very well—better than anyone else, perhaps—this was one thing he did not understand. For the girl, the days the birds were in the village were more than a time of magic and change. They were a time of longing. They were a time of wondering what else there might be in the world beyond her little village, of wondering what the birds had seen, and what they would go on to see, what strange sights and strange places and strange people.
If he had asked any other week in the long calendar of the year, she would have said yes at once and been glad. But he asked while the birds were in the village, and she thought of all that she had never seen. She looked ahead at what her future would be if she said yes, knew all that she would never see, and looked into her sweetheart’s blue eyes and said no. And she resolved that this year, as she had longed every year for all the years she could remember, she was going to follow the birds.
“But why?” her sweetheart asked. “What do you think you’re going to find that isn’t here?”
“That’s what I’m going to find out,” she said, “and if I knew the answer now, I wouldn’t need to go.”
He did his best to understand. For his own part, he knew his place was in his mountains, and had no desire to go beyond them. He also knew that there was no one else in the village he could ever love as he loved her, and so he offered to wait for her. He asked her if she could at least promise to return, and to marry him then, when she had seen whatever she had gone to seek.
It hurt her to say it, but she refused even to promise that. She tried to explain, to fit words to what she had only felt. “I’m not just going to see the world; I’m going to see who I am too. I love you with all of me that I am, but I’m going to find out what else of me there could be. It may be that you won’t love whatever else of me I find, and it wouldn’t be right to tie you in a promise to a girl that neither of us knows yet.”
Her sweetheart may have been a simple goatherd, but he wasn’t stupid either. “And it also may be that the part of you that you find won’t love me as you now do, and it wouldn’t be fair to tie you in a promise either.”
The girl hadn’t wanted to say this, loving him as she did, but yes, this too was true.
He knew he couldn’t force her to stay, and that he wouldn’t want to if he could. When the birds flew out of the village that year, the girl went too. She had no destination in mind, so she simply followed the birds, taking the road south because they had taken it before her. She took a few supplies and a little money, and set out to see what might be seen.
The girl came out of the mountains and into the plains below, and she saw flowers and animals and places such as she had never heard of or even imagined. Because it was all new to her, it seemed wondrous indeed. The people were strange to her too; though they spoke the same language, some of the words they used were new, some of their customs were different, and many of their belongings, to a girl from a small and remote village, seemed luxury. They, of course, felt that their flowers and animals and they themselves could not be more ordinary, and could not understand how she found them wonderful.
The girl did odd work here and there, watching cattle for a few days or helping a housewife with laundry or baking. Though it wasn’t always easy, she always managed to make her way. She didn’t seek a particular route and she had no destination, yet very often when she stopped for the night, whether in a town or in a wood, she would see at least one blue bird, the same kind of bird she had followed from her village. When she saw the birds, she felt that perhaps she was traveling as she was meant to go.
After weeks or months of wandering, the girl found herself in a deep woods; had she known how wide and dark it was when she entered, she never would have gone in. She had to lie down for the night still inside of it, and even the sight of a blue bird on a branch near her was scant comfort among the whispering leaves of the dark forest.
On her second day in the forest she came to a fork in the path she was following. One road was clear and smooth; the other small and overgrown. A blue bird was sitting on the overgrown path, and after a long moment of hesitating, she turned her steps towards the small trail. The trail grew more and more narrow, the forest more and more dense, until she regretted entirely the foolish notion that had sent her this way. By then, though, she was not even sure she was still on a trail, and she wouldn’t turn back because she couldn’t be sure of the way.
She pressed on as best she could, until at last she found her way blocked by a crumbling stone wall. Crumbling it may have been, but it still rose far above her head, covered in ivy. She turned to the right to follow the edge of the wall, thinking to go around. Instead, she found a wrought iron gate, and when she brushed her hand against it, it swung silently open at her touch.
She may have been a simple girl from a small mountain village, but she had heard stories. She knew an enchantment when she saw it, and being but a simple village girl, she felt she had no business at all getting mixed up in something like this. But she was a village girl who had been possessed with curiosity about the world, and so she couldn’t resist at least looking though the gate. She saw a castle, in the same state as the wall, overgrown with greenery. The forest was doing its best to take the castle back to itself, and it appeared that the castle’s efforts to survive against it were failing.
The place gave off an overwhelming sense of magic. Even more than that, it gave a sense of sadness, until the girl wept as she looked at the castle, though she didn’t know why. The sadness seemed the most centered on a single tower that rose up above the rest, and as the girl looked at that tower through tear-filled eyes, she walked through the gate and began picking her way across the overgrown lawn. She didn’t know what she was going to do, but the sadness of the castle cried out for someone to do something, and there was no one else there to do anything.
The front door of the castle opened to her touch as the gate had, and she made her way inside. The forest had grown up inside the castle too, entire trees stretching up towards the sky in rooms that had lost their roofs, ivy covering the walls, and flowers blooming in the cracks. She found a staircase leading up to the highest tower, and carefully made her way up it, hoping that the stone had fought off the forest enough to survive under her weight.
She climbed through leaves and over ivy tendrils to the very top of the tower, where there was a single round room. The ivy stretched across the floor and up over a bed in the center of the room, half-covering a beautiful young man lying on the bed. She could see the leaves rise and fall as he breathed and knew that he was enchanted. She saw the gold crown on his head and knew that he was a prince. She leaned over his face and knew what had to be done to free him and his castle of their spell. She had heard those stories too, and perhaps she would have known even if she hadn’t.
She had never kissed anyone but her mountain sweetheart, but now she leaned down and kissed the sleeping prince.
There was a great flash of light and the world thundered and shook. The girl fell across the prince and felt his arms close around her. She caught a brief glimpse of ivy snaking away from him and closed her eyes as the world went on shaking.
When the world was still and she opened her eyes, all the greenery was gone and the stones of the room gleamed as though polished. She could hear sounds from below suggesting the bustle of a great deal of human life, and she didn’t need to look to know that the forest had been banished and the castle come awake again. The prince, too, was awake, and thanked her for delivering him from his long curse. He took her hands in his and asked her if, as his deliverer, she would also consent to be his wife and his queen.
She looked at the prince, and then looked longer at the blue bird sitting on the windowsill. She thought that surely this must be as it was meant to be, that surely this must be the sort of adventure she had been seeking to find, and so she said yes.
The girl from the mountain village found herself swept up in the life of the castle. Everyone was kind to her and hailed her as their rescuer. The prince showered her with gifts—a sapphire necklace, dozens of dresses in cobalt, azure and indigo. As she waited for her wedding day, she told herself again and again that plainly this was meant to be.
But one day she asked the prince if he had ever tasted the morning air on a mountaintop on a winter day, and he could only look quizzical and guess that it must be very cold. Another day she asked him if he knew of a small blue flower that grew wild to the north, and the next day he flooded her room with blue lilacs, which were beautiful but not the right flower at all.
And finally one day, the day before she was to be married, she stood on a balcony in the castle, looked at the blue bird sitting on the railing, and thought of the blue sky arching over the mountain peaks, of the deep blue water of a mountain spring, and of the lovely blue of her sweetheart’s eyes. She felt a sadness surpassing even what she had felt looking at the ruined tower, and knew she could do only one thing.
She left the prince and the castle and its people behind, and made her way north again. She retraced her steps through the towns she had seen before, and followed the road into the mountains. On a fine spring day, she walked back into the village she had left behind. She went to her sweetheart, to tell him that the part of herself she had found loved him just as fiercely as the part she had already known.
The girl and her sweetheart were married, and they had their own cottage and their own goats and plot of farmland, and so did their children after them. For the rest of her life the girl told wonderful stories of the strange sights beyond their own tiny village, and how she had come to learn that sometimes it’s not the wanting of something that really matters, but the knowing that you want it.