Liesl walked into the courtyard where she’d spent so many days spinning flax by the well. Weeds had shot up between the cobblestones and the curtains in the windows looked greyer than she remembered.
She entered the house and followed the bickering voices of Mama and Else into the kitchen. The acrid scent of scorched porridge assaulted her nose. Mama stood by the stove, stirring the pot, as if she could still salvage the food. “I can’t believe it, Else. I asked for one thing. Just one. Stir the porridge. How hard can it be?”
Else leaned against the wall by the window. “Sure, Mother. You always ask for just one thing. And just one thing more. Stir your own porridge. I’m not hungry anyway.”
Blue grey smoke
burns in my lungs
Liesl tried to stay quiet but the smoke, floating on the air like mist in the morning, made her cough.
Mama turned around, narrowing her eyes at her stepdaughter. “You! Where have you been?” Abandoning the porridge to its fate, she closed on Liesl and grabbed her by the arm. “Disappearing like that and leaving us behind with a house too large to keep up with just the two of us. You lazy little… And where did you get all of this gold?” She tried to break off a piece of the gold that clung to Liesl’s dress, but it wouldn’t budge.
Cringing, Liesl tried to make herself smaller–to disappear. No. She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. It didn’t have to be like this. Frau Holle had taught her that.
Else looked at her, a sneer marring her face. “It’s a shame she couldn’t stay away a bit longer. One more week and we would have inherited the place.”
Turning away from Liesl, Mama aimed her small, cold eyes at her own daughter. “For once in your life, Else. Keep your damn mouth shut.”
Liesl looked at her stepmother and half-sister. “No, Else. Please continue. By all means.”
dear sister, don’t stop
They wanted me gone?
“N--no.” Wide-eyed, Else shook her head. “That’s OK.”
Liesl turned to Mama. “For your information, Mama. I fell down the well after working myself to death trying to finish the impossible amount of spinning you told me to do.” She clenched her jaw and took a deep breath. “I woke up in a strange place. An old lady took me in, fed me and gave me clean clothes.” She blinked away a tear. “When I longed for home, she helped me find my way and gave me this gift of gold.
“I could have died for all you cared, though. A complete stranger was far kinder to me than my own family.”
“Yes, but--” Her stepmother smiled at her, her eyes still calculating and cold. “But you’re alright, darling. You didn’t die.”
This was never yours?
Tell me more
“Fine. Yes.” Her stepmother’s smile fell away as she glared at Liesl. “Your father left it all to you. But I took care of you, didn’t I?”
“Well, you did something for me all right, Mama.” Liesl sighed. “But I’m not sure you can call it caring. I think you and Else need to go. After all, Else said you wanted to be rid of me. Now’s your chance.”
“You ungrateful wretch. After all that I’ve sacrificed for you!” Glaring at Liesl, she tried to grab some of the gold clinging to her sleeve a second time. “Give me that! It’s about time you started paying back some of the money you’ve cost me. Where did you even get it anyway?”
“I earned it, Mama. I worked hard for it. A complete stranger had to teach me what that was like--what it felt like to be worth something.” Liesl shook her head.
She didn’t really owe them anything. But would Papa want her to sent them away empty-handed? After all, he’d loved Mama once. She broke off two pieces of gold from her dress. One for Mama. One for Else. “This should keep you housed and fed for a while if you’re careful. Goodbye and good luck.”
Had she really hoped things would change when she came back? Turning around and exiting the kitchen, Liesl left behind their bickering voices and the smell of burnt breakfast.
Liesl looked down on the courtyard from her bedroom window as Mama and Else dragged heavy suitcases outside. They stopped by the well and Mama pointed down into the depth. Else backed away, shaking her head. Carefully, Liesl opened the window hoping to hear what they were saying.
“Don’t be such a baby, Else. You heard what she said. There’s a land below the well and gold to be had. We need this.”
“But Mama. What if I drown?”
“Don’t be silly, child. You won’t drown. She didn’t drown. You heard her. Now come on. In you go. Give me your gold. You’ll get food down there anyway. I’ll meet you at the inn in town.”
Mama helped Else climb the wall around the well. When her half-sister’s fingers clung to the edge, refusing to let go, Mama patted her hand. “You’ll do fine, dear.”
Fingers pried loose
from a terrified grip
Take a breath and jump
Scream as you fall
don’t try to swim
find Mama that gold
in the land
down the well
Image courtesy of JosepMonter via canva.com
This story is very dear to me. As a child, I couldn't get enough of it. My sister of mother would read to me at bedtime and if I got to choose, it would often be this one. In the fifth companion post, I talk a little bit of the tradition of bedtime stories and why they're such a valuable addition to the routine of any family.
Liesl and I have one more date with you, tomorrow.
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