fridayflash: a blue dress and a high tower

The story before this one is here.

Once upon a time a young woman sat in a market-stall with a very old woman. The young woman sold a chandler's wife half a dozen apples, emptying the sack which sat at her feet.

"Watch, Aunty Rose," she said to the old woman when no-one was close enough to hear. The old woman gave a barely perceptible nod and pretended to busy herself with a basket of carrots on her ground beside her.

The young woman shook out the now-empty sack, and stuck a hand inside. She waved her hand around, murmuring some strange words. As she slowly withdrew her hand, the sack filled with apples again.

The old woman laughed. "You are a better gardener than I ever was, Rapunzel!" she said. "I'm proud to have taught you."

Rapunzel blushed and smiled at the praise, and pushed one of her long golden braids out of the way as another customer reached their stall.

"What was that old witch cackling about?" said the butcher's boy from the stall next to them.

"Nothing," Rapunzel called out. "It's my birthday today, and Aunty Rose always gets me a surprise present. She's laughing because I can never guess what it is."

"Oh," said the boy. "I didn't mean... um, happy birthday."

When the crier rang his bell and declared the market closed for the week, Rapunzel and the crone put their baskets and sacks on a pull-cart and brought them back to the house. They only stayed at the house the evenings before and after market-day — most of the time they lived in the only standing tower of a ruined castle, deep in the middle of the forest.

"I'll make the stew, Aunty. You rest," said Rapunzel as they finished carrying the market leftovers to the kitchen. She heard the old woman pull herself up the stairs. To her surprise, she heard Rose coming down again only a few minutes later.

"You can finish the stew in a bit. Sit down with me first," said Rose. Rapunzel wiped her hands on her apron, then joined Rose at the kitchen table.

Rose stroked the top of a muslin-wrapped bundle placed on the table in front of her. "It's ten years today since you came to live here," she said, "and I know it must have been very hard for you, but you have been a better helper and a better apprentice than I could ever have hoped to have. If I had gone looking particularly for a little girl to help me, I could not have done better than to find you."

Rapunzel put her hands on the table and stared at them. Rose usually only gave praise to sweeten a criticism that was coming next, although she had become more complimentary over the years. Rapunzel had learned it was better to be humble than to let her pride bring her to a fall.

"When I was young, they called me Rose Red," said the old woman. "My sister was fair and blonde, like you. People called her Snow White. Our mother always dressed me in red and her in blue. We hated the monotony, and used to try on each other's dresses when we were getting ready for bed. But the truth was, Mother was right — blue really did suit Snow better, and I suppose the red made me look less pale. Which is a very long way of saying... I hope you like blue." She pushed the muslin-wrapped bundle to Rapunzel.

Rapunzel pulled the bundle close to her. "You never told me your sister's name before. What happened to her?"

The crone bit her lip. "She got married, and everyone said she lived happily every after. She seemed to be, at the wedding, but her husband came from a land very far away. Then I married, and moved even farther away."

"Did you live here, in the house?"

"We lived in a castle." Rose shook herself and nodded at the bundle. "Go on, open it."

Rapunzel carefully loosened the ribbons holding the bundle together. Inside the muslin was a blue dress, a little old-fashioned in its style but exquisitely made.

"It's beautiful!" Rapunzel cried. "Where-ever did you find it?"

Rose smiled. "I made it. Did you really think I could take that many naps after every single market day? I'm not that faded yet, dearie. Try it on for me?"

"Not until I'm done cooking. I don't want to ruin it! You're too good to me." Rapunzel carefully re-wrapped the dress and rose to finish making the stew.

"Then I think I will take that nap," said Rose, and she left the kitchen.

Rapunzel heard her crossing the hall, climbing the stairs... there was a thud and a thump, then silence. "Aunty Rose?" she called, and listened, but no answer came. "Aunty Rose?" She stopped chopping vegetables a second time, wiped her hands on her apron, and went to the hall to see what was the matter.

Rose lay at the foot of the stairs, her legs twisted under her and her sharp blue eyes staring without seeing. Rapunzel shrieked and ran to her, but it was obvious there was nothing to be done.

Rapunzel lay the old woman's body out in the parlour that night, wrapped in a winding-sheet made from Rose's bedclothes. She kept vigil until dawn, thinking of all the things she had learned since she came to live with Rose as a child. When dawn came she put Rose's body on the pull-cart and hid it under the baskets and sacks of vegetables, then left town before anyone was out and about who could ask her why she was alone. She took the road to the forest, and the forest track to the secret clearing, and arranged the special rocks just so. In a blink she was in front of the tower, their home. Her home.

The tower had neither a door nor stairs, only a large, airy set of rooms at the top with a window facing each of the four directions. Rapunzel built a fire and offered Roses's ashes to the earth, saying the prayers from Rose's battered old book of incantations and offerings.

Ever after, when people asked about Rose at the market, Rapunzel told them she was too feeble to work anymore.

And the first day home in the tower after every market-day, Rapunzel would bathe herself in water scented with rose-oil, put on her pretty blue dress, and sing the praises of her mentor and friend from each window, to each of the four winds.

To be continued...