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Featured Story • May 2014

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Milkweed

 

Cedar Sanderson

 
 

Cecelia sat on her horse, skirts and kirtle hiked up around her knees. She was staring in dismay at the field before her. That winter when Hugh had bought it, it was a smooth expanse of white, looking just as a hayfield ought. No brush or weeds pushing up through the snow, and Hugh had said he recalled it was mowed twice yearly. She could expect a couple of tons of good hay. Only now she saw the fraud that had been sold to them.

She dismounted stiffly. She rarely rode anymore; most of her time was spent in the gardens and house these days. With two young daughters, her world had slowly telescoped inward until the walls were pressing in on her. Today she had been eager to get out, into the fresh spring air, to ride and enjoy the warm sun. Now, her heart was falling as she walked into the field.

The grass was eclipsed by the unmistakable shoots of milkweed that were already twice the height of the green blades. She touched one, feeling the velvety texture of the furled leaves. The entire field was full of it. Worthless . . . She sighed deeply, her hand falling back to her side and clenching on a handful of her skirt. In order to make this back into a hayfield every stalk of it would have to be hand-pulled. The roots were persistent, too deep to plow out, and brittle. Every broken bit would throw up new plants.

“Oh, I could just cry!” Cecelia exclaimed to the blue sky overhead. It wouldn’t cripple them, but the family couldn’t afford to throw money away. And it would disappoint her husband.

“Please don’t.” A sweet voice responded.

Startled, Cecelia looked around. She didn’t see anyone there.

“Look down.” The voice commanded with a ring of amusement.

The tall woman looked down at the grass and milkweed, and saw a tiny person standing on the tip of one of the shoots. Cecelia sank to her knees slowly, her heart pounding. She knew this was one of the Faeries, and to offend them was to court death, or worse.

“Greetings, Lady.” A court bow was difficult on one’s knees, but she assayed it to try and appease the tiny magical being. A trill of laughter and a returned bow rewarded her.

“Merry meet, Cecelia duLac.”

Cecelia saw a shimmering pair of wings flick out, and then the Faery was hovering for a second, before she grew bigger. Cecelia blinked, and the other was standing nose to nose with her, waist high had she been standing.

“I am Eudica, queen of the Lac Faery clan.” The royal Faery introduced herself to the human kneeling before her.

“I am flattered to meet you, my lady. You know me?” The farm wife was dismayed at the thought of magic in her safe little world. Nothing good came out of meddling with magic.

“I knew who this field was bought for.”

Cecelia looked around. “What is it that makes you interested in this?” She heard the disdain in her own tone and blushed. She was speaking far too directly to a being who could destroy her, however delicate the queen appeared. “No good hay will come from here for two years at least.”

Eudica shook her head. “I am interested in the milkweed.” Mirroring Cecilia’s earlier gesture, she petted the fuzzy stalk nearest her.

Cecelia blinked. “Why?” she blurted.

“I have my reasons.” The queen replied demurely, but Cecelia saw a twinkle in her eye.

Emboldened by that, the farmwife in Cecelia rose to the surface and she began to negotiate. “What about my hay, then? The sheep need to eat all winter, and I will have to buy another hayfield.”

Eudica laughed. The silvery trill made Cecelia smile despite her trepidation. She knew now why people became so enchanted with Faeries they would do anything to see one again. The little queen stretched her wings out, looking over the field. Cecelia recognized deep thought and remained silent, looking around herself, enjoying the warm spring sun. Behind her, the shaggy horse delicately grazed around the milkweed stalks. He knew not to eat them.

The air smelled sweet from the flowers in the hedgerow. She noted the apple blossoms and made a mental note to return for the fruit in late summer. Wild apples added a nice tartness to cider. In the corner of the field, a massive oak towered, its leaves only just starting to come out. Oaks always came last to spring.

Eudica pointed at it. “Dig under that tree and you’ll have your answer.”

Cecelia looked at her in surprise. “Dig under the tree?”

“Yes, Farmwife. I do pay my rents, in more than Faerie gold.”

Cecelia winced. That was a nasty trick some humans had gotten the worse from, gold that vanished as soon as the bargain was fulfilled. She wondered who had been at fault, though, looking at Eudica and seeing the honesty in the Faery’s eyes. Humans were every bit as treacherous and deceitful as the stories made Faeries out to be. Hugh had told her often enough that her judgement of a person was what he’d rely on to death, and for once, she decided to follow his advice. Her assessment of the queen was that she could be trusted, at least in this matter. Add to that, she’d just as soon not offend the powerful being.

“Done. I will rent you the field, and the milkweed, in return for what is buried beneath the tree.” Hesitantly, she held out her hand to the queen. Eudica took her fingertips in both velvety hands. Cecelia looked down at their hands, the queen’s fingers like a baby’s, contrasting with her own reddened, rough ones.

“You will not be sorry, Cecelia. I like you, Farmwife, you are refreshingly direct and honest.”

Cecelia felt her cheeks warm. “I have had no dealings with the Land of Faerie. I can but behave as I am.”

“High court is ever a maze of manners and dangers.” Eudica sighed. “Would I had more dealings with farmwives.”

Cecelia felt a surprising twinge of pity for the queen. She was lonely, she realized. “Perhaps we shall meet again.”

“Oh, certainly we shall!” Eudica laughed again, and as she did that small enchantment, she shrank to the shimmering sprite she had been when Cecelia first saw her. “Good day, Farmwife!” she called as she flew away.

She would have to return with tools; she had nothing but her hands to dig with. Cecelia went to the horse and hoisted herself back into the saddle, rearranging her skirts for decency. How she was going to explain to Hugh that a Faery queen was renting the hayfield, she had no idea.

On the following morning, she returned with mattock and axe for roots and let the horse free to graze again. She had come alone to do this, as she had no idea what she would find. Walking under the wide branches, she saw immediately where she would need to dig, a patch of disturbed, weedy ground. An hour later, dirty and hot, she stared into the hole and was reminded that Faerie was not only a realm of beauty, but of fierce, proud creatures. The man had died of a crushed skull, that was immediately obvious. She wondered what he had done to deserve a lonely burial, with the leather bag carefully placed on his chest. Without looking, she knew it would be filled with gold coins.

She knew of none who would be lying here, and she knew everyone in the surrounding countryside. As Hugh’s wife, it was her role to know and tend those who were ill or struck down. This man had been here for no longer than a few years, or his bones would be darker. She had seen an old grave dug up, as a child, and she remembered the bones of the consecrated grave, teak-dark like the deck of a ship. This unconsecrated grave with its tumbled bones was the work of the Faeries, and she shivered as she reached for the bag.

Reluctantly, she lifted it out, feeling the weight of it, and began to rebury the body. The queen had indeed paid her rent in real gold, in a macabre way that reminded Cecelia to be careful in her dealings. She rode home, shivering once in a while despite the heat of the sun.

Cecelia did not return to the field for months, until late summer. She rode slowly there, clinging to the cantle with both hands and letting the horse make his own way down the lane. She had fought for this time in the sun, pleading to be allowed out of sight of her protective family. The horse, his coat sleek now rather than the winter shaggy of spring, stopped at the newly built gate to the field and she slid down. Once on the ground she stood for a second on wobbly legs, then reached out to the gatepost for support. Perhaps it was a mistake to come this far so soon.

She wasn’t sure why she had come here, only that after her illness the thought of seeing and smelling the milkweed blossoms had called to her. The field was almost unrecognizable, the thickest crop of milkweed she had ever seen, the air thick with the spicy scent of the blossoms. The purple globes of blossoms held waist-high to her made her press a hand to her belly, then sink slowly to the ground, leaning against the post, lost in thought.

Eudica fluttered to her knee, surprising Cecelia. She had not expected to meet the queen here. Much less to have the powerful being greet her so intimately. The sprite shimmered, and then grew to child-size. She wrapped her arms around Cecelia, and the farmwife burst into tears. She was embarrassed to do this in front of the Faery, but she had not cried a tear since her loss. Now, it seemed, she would not be able to stop again.

“Shh . . . There, now.” Eudica stroked her hair and cheek softly. “Tell me what has befallen you, my dear Farmwife.”

Cecelia hiccuped and drew a deep breath. “I lost a child.” She pressed her hand to her belly again. It felt concave, after the few short months of life growing there, the firm curve that had held a child. Her eyes filled with tears again, and her chest hurt both from the tears and the pain she had been in since the night she knew her baby was dead.

“Oh, my dear.” Eudica hugged her again, and then sat on the ground next to her. “Tell me about it.”

“I know how fragile life is, and how few of us mortals live to be old. But the babies . . . I have always feared losing one, you know. My daughters I carried safely, this son . . . I lost. They tell me not to fret so, that there will be another child.” Her voice grew higher as she spoke, and she took deep breaths, trying not to let hysteria overwhelm her.

“We of Faerie understand how precious each child is. We have so few . . .” Eudica’s voice trailed off, and Cecelia heard the sorrow in the other woman’s broken sigh. Now it was her turn to reach for the Faery’s hand, taking it gently.

Her heaviness of heart kept her from speaking, and finally Eudica looked her in her eyes. “I could bring you a child.”

Horrified, Cecelia drew her hand back. “Some other mother’s grief to be my profit? A changeling in her nursery so that I may give my husband a son? No . . . No!”

The Faery Queen smiled at her. “That answer was from the heart. You are a good woman, Cecelia. Some of us . . . of my people, are not so honorable as you. I have never taken a human child to keep. I would not bring you one.”

“You were testing me again.” Cecelia sighed. “We share this, then, my lady. We are mothers, first, no matter whether human or Faery. And the children are so dear.”

Eudica smiled sweetly. “Mothers are the same the world around. Call me Dicey, my friend, and I shall feel at ease.”

Cecelia tried to smile back, her heart lighter for the tears shed and pain shared. “And I am Celia, to my friends. The milkweed grows so well, I hope it is meeting your needs.”

She hoped to change the subject to something less painful, and stop her tears. The Faery must have understood, for she smiled as she responded.

“Oh, it is. Look . . .” Dicey stood and took a few steps into the milkweed, almost disappearing in the plants that were as tall as she was. She returned with a fat striped caterpillar in her hands and set it on Celia’s palm. It reared up and twisted around, then marched stolidly toward the now distant vegetation it wanted. Celia laughed.

“It tickles, all the little feet. These grow into monarch butterflies? And they are your livestock, aren’t they?”

She looked up at Dicey, smiling through the tears on her cheeks. The antics of the little insect, trying to get home again, had cheered her irrationally. She felt good here. Warm for the first time in a long while. She had been so cold, from the loss of blood, and from despair. Even the sunshine hadn’t helped. The loneliness had been from the women around her making it feel as though she was wrong in being sad about the loss of her child.

“They are like horses, you see.” Dicey sat back down and patted the caterpillar, which was now making its way down Celia’s skirt. “When they migrate south, we go with them, our carriages woven from milkweed silk and pulled by butterflies.”

“But you fly yourself.”

“Yes, but that long it is too tiring, you see. And our babies cannot fly. Nor can we stay here, under the snow, without starving and freezing.”

Celia nodded. It made sense to her, and she realized what a great secret she had just been entrusted with. She carefully lifted the caterpillar and set it on a nearby milkweed leaf. It immediately began to eat. She sighed.

“The field will be safe with me,” Celia promised.

“I know it will.” Dicey sat next to her, her head against Celia’s shoulder. They both drowsed in the summer sun, listening to the hum of bees in the milkweed and intoxicated by the scent of the flowers.

Finally the queen sighed and murmured, “I have not had peace like this in years, my friend.”

“Nor I, work is always demanding my attention, if not the children.”

“You said you have two daughters?”

Celia had not said, but she was grateful both for the Queen’s observation of her family and the opportunity to talk about them. “Elspeth and Jane . . . they are becoming beautiful young ladies.”

“Accomplished with spinning and weaving, I imagine. I know their mother is.”

Celia looked at her in surprise. “How do you know?”

“In the marketplace your cloth is sought after, and your dear husband speaks very highly of you.”

Celia boggled a little at the idea of solid, quiet Hugh speaking to the Faery Queen. Dicey laughed for the first time that day.

“I am not always seen by humans while I listen, my dear. How did you explain this . . .” she gestured at the field, “to him?”

“I told him I was going to try spinning milkweed silk from the seed pods.”

“Oh . . . Hm. Would that work for you?”

Celia shook her head. “I tried it as a girl. The strands are too thin and fragile, even the lightest touch of a spinner will break the strands.”

Dicey nodded. “Our carriages are spun by Faery hands, so much different than your spinning wheel and mortal fingers.”

Celia smiled. “There is not much of magic in my world.”

“I would give you a gift, then, with no expectation of anything in return. Magic and happiness you need in your life. This fall, gather the pods, with your daughters, just as they brown, but before they split open. Try to spin the floss and see what comes of it.”

Celia heard hoofs, then and turned to look up the lane to see who was coming. Dicey shrank to sprite size and kissed Celia’s ear quickly.

“See you in the spring . . .” Celia heard as she flew away. Hugh was riding up the lane toward her. He looked concerned that she was leaning against the post. As he neared her he slid from the horse’s back and hurried to her.

“Are you hurt?” he exclaimed, dropping to his knees and running his hands over her.

Celia laughed at his tender concern. “No, only resting in the warmth. Sit with me a minute? Then we will go home.”

He took the spot at her side where Dicey had been just before. She snuggled into his strong shoulder.

“Isn’t it pretty?”

“Yes, and it has put the roses back in my good wife’s cheeks, so I am grateful even for a field of weeds.”

“It’s a special place.” She murmured to him, glad he loved her enough to accept an oddity. He put an arm around her and held her close in silence for a while.

“I am glad to see your grieving abate,” he said finally. “I wanted to ask you . . .”

“Yes?” She looked up into his grave face.

“Was it because you thought I wanted a son?”

“No . . . well, yes, that too.”

He hugged her. “All I want is you, safe, and our two living children are blessings. Never think I would endanger you simply for an heir. My nephew is a grand boy, and he will do admirably.”

Celia sniffled a little into the linen waistcoat she had spun, dyed, woven, and sewn herself for him. “I lost our child . . .” she cried.

“I know. I wanted him, too, for all he might have been. I am just glad you are safe, today. We will never forget him.”

She nodded, too overwhelmed for words. He was a good man, her husband.

“Come, Wife.” He lifted her gently to her feet. “Can you ride?”

“I think so. Resting has done me good.”

“Then perhaps I will bring you back again. Tonight, though, I am hungry and would carry you home and feed you.”

Celia surprised herself with a giggle. He helped her onto the horse and they rode companionably back to the farmhouse talking of mundane things such as crops and the children.

In the fall when she and the children harvested the milkweed pods, the wind laughed and rattled among the dry stalks, as if a gang of Faery children played at their sides. Celia, strong and hearty again, took the time to sing and play with her daughters as they worked. That night, in the firelight because she was too impatient to wait for morning, she spun floss that shone like a pearl in the ruddy light, whiter and finer than linen ever was, as fine as the Orient silk she had once seen. It was strong, too. She could not break it however hard she pulled.

Celia sat at her spinning wheel and laughed in delight. The Faery’s gift would be worn by human kings, she had no doubt, and Hugh would be even more puffed up about his wife in the marketplace. But at this moment, all the farmwife wanted was for spring to come, and the return of her good friend, the Faery Queen.

 
 

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Cedar in the Mad HatCedar Sanderson is a writer, blogger, and businesswoman who can be found in her office pounding the keyboard when she isn’t at school studying to be a Mad Scientist. Her work has been published by Stonycroft Publishing, Naked Reader Press, and Something Wicked. She is the author of the young adult novel Vulcan’s Kittens, and her contemporary fantasy series that began with Pixie Noir will continue with Trickster Noir, scheduled to be released in May 2014. She writes regular blog columns at Amazing Stories Magazine and the Mad Genius Club, in addition to her own writing blog, www.cedarwrites.com. She prefers science fiction, mostly writes fantasy, and dabbles in nonfiction when her passion is stirred.

She says, “I wrote ‘Milkweed’ at a time in my life when I was terrified I would lose a child. Added to that, my sister’s inability to have children, and, well, the two women in the story blossomed out of my fears, but also my relationships with friends who have leaned on me just as I leaned on them when one of us needed a shoulder to cry on.”

 

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