Opinions varied as to whether the village of Kille had been blessed by gods or cursed by demons. Every child born in the year of our prince’s ascension to the throne came into the world possessed of a supernatural and supremely useful limb. The blacksmith’s son had a pair of tongs for a left hand. The baker’s son had a rolling pin for a chin. Sarasponda, daughter of the village tailor, carried a spinning wheel on her shoulders in place of her head.
As Sarasponda grew, she developed tremendous neck muscles from holding up the weight of her head. To her, the wheel was as ordinary as her arms or her toes, or her parents’ eyes and noses. The oils collected in its varnished wood seeped the rich scent of her mother’s chicken potpie to her. In the wind through its spokes, she could hear the click-clack of her father’s foot on the treadle. The spindle’s point served as her roving eye; through it, she observed all: the pleasure her mother found in her weaving, the pride her father took in his tailoring, the knowing glances her parents shared, glances that revealed how much they loved and feared and feared for their unusual offspring. No sense was unknown to her. Though the blinking of eyelids, the flare of nostrils, or the parting of lips for a kiss were gestures she knew only from watching others’ faces, she did not feel their lack and wasted no time imagining herself as someone else.
Her mother ran carded wool through the inner workings of Sarasponda’s mind, teaching her of spindle and treadle, warp and weft. When the spinning wheel paused in its motion, Sarasponda’s thoughts slowed, consciousness dreamlike and senses muted as if transmitting underwater. When her parents spun her round—in their work or just to bring on her delighted laugher—ideas poured through her like water through a mill. So long as the great wheel spun, she could read at a quick clip, recite passages from her mother’s dog-eared books verbatim, and learn garment types and textile lore easy as a sigh.
Sixteen years after our prince took the throne, each tool-limbed child of Kille was asked to present to his Highness a gift. The baker’s boy offered a five-tiered wedding cake; the blacksmith’s son presented him with a sword of folded steel. Sarasponda produced a skein of finespun silk. The prince examined her handiwork and asked if it possessed any unusual properties. When she mentioned its slickness, its warmth against wind, its elegance when woven into fabric, he’d laughed at her and ridden away, saddlebags full of gifts made for him by her other, more talented peers.
That night, once her parents were asleep, she crept from her bed to curl at the base of her mother’s great loom, small, sweet droplets of sap weeping from the wood of her wheel as she mourned the injustice of the prince’s favor. What had been wrong with her offering?
In despair, she took up a handful of straw and set it to her wheel, then squealed in surprise when it spun out into frail, golden thread. Pulling it free from her head, she observed its perfection. It was the substance distilled, the essence of straw: its slippery feel and brittle beauty, its scent of petrichor.
At dawn her parents found her seated in the center of their workroom surrounded by shining piles of improbable thread: cherry-red thread made from firewood; shining black thread made from the fireplace poker; and an enormous pile of sunshine-bright thread, the straw of her original attempt.
“Mama, isn’t it lovely? Weave it for me, do.”
Her mother did as she was bid, taking up the golden thread to warp her smallest loom. But even as her mother wound thread round the pegs, Sarasponda’s work collapsed into powder, the floor smeared yellow as if with pollen. Sarasponda’s wheel ground to a halt; her shoulders hunched in disappointment.
“I’m sorry, daughter mine. It’s pretty to look on, but it doesn’t wish to be so used.”
Mother and daughter tried and tried again, but each time the thread fell apart—wood turned to sawdust, iron to a lacerating glitter. That night, alone in her room, Sarasponda picked splinters from her fingers until they bled. The prince had been right to scorn her work.
The next morning she paid a visit to Kenner, the baker’s boy, a round-cheeked, round-bellied young man with a wispy moustache that hovered over his elongated rolling-pin chin.
“The prince rode away with a bag full of your treats. Will you tell me why?”
The baker puffed up with pride. “It’s my gift. Everything this rolling pin touches, once it comes out the oven . . . well, catch a whiff and you’ll see.”
There in the warm room she set her wheel to spinning, pulling in the fragrant scent of baked goods. And then she wanted to devour them all, grab cookies and pastries and cakes and fling them pell-mell between her spokes, consume them down to infinitesimal crumbs and then inhale those as well.
“So anyone who smells your wares . . . ”
“ . . . is compelled to eat them, as quickly and as many as they can stomach.” The baker’s boy grinned wide as his voluminous chin.
“How did you learn this?”
Kenner’s gaze drifted to the floor. “I had a teacher.”
She reached across the counter and grabbed his wrists, arresting his rhythmic kneading. “Who?”
He jerked his hands away, refusing to look at her. “A door opened in my belly, and out he popped. He’ll appear soon enough. I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you more.”
She left the bakery and wound her way up the hill to the blacksmith’s forge. Inside, Jenner held a sword in place with his tongs, pounding it into shape for the prince’s latest war. Jenner’s face was coated in soot, but his teeth shone bright as new-polished metal as he paused in his labors to smile at her.
“What can I do for you?”
“The prince rode away with your weapon at his side. I want to know why.”
Jenner flexed the bicep above his tong-hand, displaying it proudly. “It’s my gift. Anything these tongs grip, once the weapon comes off the anvil . . . well, here. Hold this.”
He extended to her the pommel of a massive two-handed sword, which she lifted with difficulty.
“Hold it steady.” He selected another sword from the many adorning his walls. Then, in one swift stroke, he sheared her sword in two.
“I made this one. That sword you hold was one of the prince’s old weapons, forged by his former blacksmith.”
She set her wheel to spinning. “So any weapon you forge . . . ”
“ . . . can slice through finest steel.” He replaced his sword on the wall, tossing the remains of hers onto a pile of scrap metal.
“How did you learn you could do this?”
Now too, Jenner’s eyes flicked floorward. “I had a teacher.”
Desperation threaded through her words. “Who? Tell me. I’m begging you.”
“A door opened in my forehead and out he popped. He’ll show himself to you, in his own time.”
Useless. Her wheel was useless, as she had no teacher to finesse her gift. Sarasponda retreated home, defeated.
“Are you my teacher?” she asked.
“I’m Rumple-stilts-kin. My coattails rumple in a stiff breeze, and I need stilts to reach the lowest shelves. Too, I’m your kin, made from your heart-meats and grit and everything you hide deep inside. Or I can be Rumpled-tilt-skin, if you prefer. Do you like my rumpled suit? Hold it up to light and you can see right through it.” He spun so she could admire him, his raggedy suit flapping in the moonlight. Yes, she could indeed see through its thinness, as if his suit were made of crisply folded paper. She wanted to reach out and touch it, but he danced away from her on pointed boots. “I shed years like a snake by husking the skin of the young. Takes me two babies per skin-suit, but then, ah then! Glove-soft protection against the ravages of age. Immortality, and for so cheap a price! This one’s nearly worn out. Time to stitch anew!”
She recoiled from him, horrified. She’d heard of his kind: skin-stealers, murderers of babes. How long had he been living coiled inside her chest?
“Get away from me!”
He laughed evilly, as evil things do. “You summoned me, girl-who-is-half-spider. Now create for me something to critique, that I may earn my keep.”
“I’ll do nothing you ask.”
“These babies weren’t anyone you knew,” he said petulantly, hands balled into tiny fists. “You will create for me, or I’ll wreak havoc til you do.”
He leapt about the room, toppling her mother’s looms, her father’s mannequins, all their hard work crushed underfoot. She caught a mannequin, but the great loom crashed to the ground. “Now, before I lose my patience.”
“But I have no material. What should I spin?”
“Material? Lazy girl. Wood, iron, straw? Pap. You do not create from objects in the world. What you make comes from within, not without. If you wish to spin for princes, you must learn to create from nothing. First the prince will ask you to make a pair of hands that can work forever and never tire.”
He eyed her father’s sewing machine, and she knew she had no choice. That machine was her family’s livelihood. She set her wheel to spinning, though what he’d asked was impossible. Her mind whirled, settling on the image of her mother’s cracked hands, fingers chapped with cold and arthritic from unceasing motion. She pictured her mother, back bent over her loom; the click-clack of her father’s sewing machine, needle punching through silk in a straight line, stitching faster than thought as he raced to complete an overcoat for a wealthy client. Her parents often stitched and wove through the night, long after Sara’s head had ceased to circle.
“See what you’ve made,” said the little man.
Before her crouched a very old woman in a very thin shift. This grandmother’s hands were constructed of meshed gears and levers; she was part crone, part machine. Her rheumy eyes spilled over with misery and confusion as they stared up at Sara, the woman’s irises the same shade of hazel as her mother’s. Without instruction, as if taking orders from her mechanical hands rather than her brain, the woman set to work repairing her mother’s damaged loom.
“No good, no good at all,” cried the little man. “You’ve made your art a drudgery. Unmake it at once.”
Sarasponda couldn’t believe Rumplestiltskin’s gall. She’d done as he’d bidden, and succeeded—had woven a whole person, no less.
“Sara?” Her father’s voice. He stood in the doorway, yawning. “Who’s your little friend?”
The tiny man flew into a rage, stamping his feet and tearing his hair. “No, no, no. No friends, no family. Crutches, obstacles, distractions. You must be remade from the ground up or you’ll never keep anything inside that loose-screwed head of yours!” He tripped over to the fireplace and, with a flick of the poker, skittered two fat coals out of from behind the grate and into a pile of fabric. “You’ll thank me when I’m through.”
Everything she’d ever loved, gone up in smoke. Her mother, asleep, awoke to burning. Her father had gone back in to save her mother while the mechanical grandmother continued mending, oblivious. All had been consumed. She’d chased her father as he ran toward the burning building, but Rumplestiltskin had flung himself at her ankles, and she’d tripped trying to avoid his grisly suit. Then the roof collapsed.
Sarasponda lay where she’d fallen, her wheel arrested in its motion, as she did not wish to think or feel. She cared not a whit if she ever spun again. She understood now that his true name was Despair, he who’d crawled up from the cellar beneath her heart.
“Next, the prince will ask you to make a mouth that can speak stories unceasing, each one sparkling and new,” said Rumplestiltskin.
“I won’t!” She grabbed him by the lapel, prepared to shred him to patchwork scraps, but he was far too quick for her and ripped free of her grasping fingers. He rapped her smartly on the wheel, as if her head were a door he wished to open.
“You will create for me, or I’ll feast on everything you love.”
“You’ve murdered my family. What’s left?”
“Do you value your village so little? Dozens of plump babes ripe for the skinning.” He smoothed his wrinkled coat. “Spin, before I lose my patience.”
“But how? My mind is empty,” she implored him.
“Take up a collection.”
A collection? What on earth could he mean? Abscond with others’ stories as he had pillaged hers? Rumplestiltskin gave her poor wheel another spin. “Use your head!” he said. If she’d had eyes to weep, she would have.
Before she could stop him, he’d popped open that strange door in her chest, scrunched himself small, and leapt inside her.
“Practice while I’m gone, there’s a good pupil. Tabula rasa. You have no bad habits to fall back on now.”
He slammed the tiny door behind him so hard her lungs ached.
Even running as fast as she could, it took her too long to reach the bakery. She burst in the door, but when she saw Kenner’s sorrowful frown stretched wider than his rolling pin, she knew she was too late.
He took in her dirt-crusted nails, her gasping breaths, her dress stained with ash. “So you’ve met him.”
She nodded and told him her tale, haltingly, still in shock. When she was through she beseeched him: “I need you to tell me a tale of your own, one I can spin into thread. Tell me about Rumplestiltskin.”
The baker boy’s frown deepened, its ends tipping nearly to the handles of the pin. “I told you true. He taught me to make treats no one can decline. Quick on his heels came the prince you’re so eager to please. His Highness bought up all my stores. News came this morning from the garrison: soldiers opposed to the prince’s war are dropping dead by the hundreds. Poisoned, it’s said, by sweets so tempting they didn’t think twice before gobbling them up.”
Sarasponda made no sound besides the rhythmic whir of her wheel as she took in his tale.
“The little man warned me: princes come with prices. Last night, someone crept into my house and stole my baby brother right out of his cradle.”
She’d come too late.
The baker’s boy turned back to his work, but not before she caught sight of tears coursing down his cheeks, beading down the pin and sliding into the dough. His poisoned goods would taste of salt. “Rumplestilstkin’s price isn’t worth the prince’s favor.”
Sarasponda smelled the forge long before she reached it, an iron tang like blood on the breeze. The metric beat of hammer blows on metal sounded like a heartbeat. She waited patiently until he’d finished. Leaning against his anvil stood a massive, hinged contraption of iron molded into the shape of a human body. The casket’s door stood open, its interior lined with spikes.
The blacksmith’s boy let his tongs fall to his side; the bellows wheezed sadly. “There’s not much to tell. My mam went to check on little Will just after breakfast. Looked in his crib and found it empty. I’d take it all back if I could. The prince is done with swords. Now he wants these,” Jenner waved his tongs at the ghastly device teetering beside the anvil. “Rumplestiltskin said that he’d need a babe’s skin, and soon; that he was owed a long life for all the help he gave struggling artisans. I never thought he’d take our Will.”
Too late, too late by far.
She returned to the husk of her home, holding the boys’ tales in her mind. Rumplestiltskin was nowhere to be seen. Her wheel felt leaden with others’ grief, hers and the baker’s and the blacksmith’s and the village’s, each rotation laborious. She wanted their stories out of her. Images fixed in her mind: soldiers doubled over and clawing at their bellies, blood leaking from a closed casket, two empty cradles, her home razed to blackened timbers. She spun as if she could pull all that sorrow out of her and make of it an object fit for a prince. An evil prince.
When at last she shook herself loose from trance, splayed in the dirt at her feet lay a naked man covered in mouths. As she shook his shoulder to wake him, Rumplestiltskin leapt out of the door beneath her heart.
“Well? Speak, then. What stories do you keep inside?” He glowered down at her just-spun creation and kicked the naked man in the ribs. The man rolled over and she could see that he had no mouth beneath his nose; from nostrils to chin was a flat plane.
Then every mouth that elsewhere dotted his skin opened wide to scream.
She hated this hideous, yowling thing of her own making. Why had she ever thought she could spin other people’s stories? They weren’t hers; of course they’d wake screaming. Why had she thought she could spin away her sadness? She couldn’t be rid of it; of course it would wake screaming. And why did this hideous little man keep poking and prodding her as if she could work miracles? She wanted only to wake from the nightmare that had become her life.
“A failure again. Unmake him at once.”
“No. Not until you tell me what you’ve done to the children.” Small and large holes dotted his suit like open mouths; his skinsuit looked worn, and for this she was grateful.
Rumplestiltskin pursed his lips and spit at her, “The two boys? Wouldn’t you like to know.” Then his narrowed eyes slit crafty. “I treasure their soft skins. It takes a strict diet of cream to fatten them up, and a stricter one of water to fast loose their hides. You have time. Perhaps you could still save them.”
“Where are you keeping them?”
“When you made the automated grandmother, where did you keep her? Inside the prison of your mind, of course. Don’t worry; they’ll be perfectly safe until I have need of them. Now unmake this screaming thing.”
But now that she’d won her tiny victory, she was left with a conundrum: how to unmake the thousand-mouthed man. Rumplestiltskin had set fire to her last failed creation, but she had no such spark now. Approaching the naked man, his mouths wailing loud as a fire alarm, she spotted a loose thread dangling at the base of his left foot. She tugged and he came undone, substance collapsing like steel into glitter.
Silence descended around as she unwove him down to his last gaping mouth. Once again she’d created for Despair, weaving something true by pure force of mind. Why did success feel so much like failure?
“Last try, my dear. If I were a prince—though I’m not, or at least am no longer—I’d ask you to spin for me the skin of a child who will never grow up. In fact, make two of them.”
“And what will you do with these skins?”
“I’m giving you the chance to save the children of your village. I won’t ask twice.”
“Our prince would never ask for child-skins. This is a gift for you and you alone.”
“Goose girl with feathers for brains, or should that be wool? He and I are the same. Or, I am what he will become. Or, he is me on the threshold, and soon he will open the door to immortality. You’re not nearly so clever as you think. Better to ask instead, what kind of prince has need of an immortality-granting skin-suit?”
“An evil prince.”
He clapped his hands like she’d passed a test. “Indeed.”
“I’ve done everything you asked. None of it’s brought me closer to knowing why the straw I spun to gold fell apart.”
“I’ve taught you how to spin something from nothing,” the little man said.
“And I’ve taught you how to spin gold from the dross of others’ useless tales.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” she said, the memory of the screaming man still spindle-sharp in her mind.
“Then you can’t say I’ve taught you nothing,” he said, and once again set her wheel in motion.
She saw a blank canvas, then dissolved its frame and saw emptiness, a vast field of white onto which she projected the interior of a womb, pink and pulsing, inside which she saw herself, seated before her mother’s loom, spinning invisible thread for a funeral dress that, once made, would leave her naked. She saw herself slipping on this invisible dress; she attended her parents’ funeral so exposed. She saw the uselessness and futility of everything she’d ever woven. She felt Despair close his hand around her heart and make a fist tight enough stop her pulse. Sarasponda spun for her life.
When she stopped seeing with her mind’s eye and looked about her, she found she’d spun a girl whose slight body was shaped eerily like her own—a daughter, perhaps, or a younger version of herself. But rather than a spinning wheel for a head, this girl had a merry human face, within which two intelligent brown eyes sparkled. In her hands she held a stack of parchment paper. The girl shook out the paper in her hands and it unfolded into a suit made of opaque, flaking material.
Then the girl’s face distorted in fear. She lifted her linen shift high, beneath which Sarasponda could see the long threads of a loom attached to the bone frame of her ribs. The child of her mind carried a loom where her torso should be. Sarasponda could see right through her.
“So which is it?” mused Rumplestiltskin. “Is that my new skin folded in her hands? Or are we intended to weave my newest outfit on the insides of this girl child? Or—and I prefer this option—perhaps I should skin her myself.” The little man steepled his fingers. “Explain your form, little creation.”
“Silly old beast!” The child spoke up, startling Sarasponda; Rumplestiltskin jumped halfway out of his skinsuit. “Try this on and see if it fits.” The girl held out the tattered cloth she carried.
The tiny man shucked off his ill-fitting outfit lacey with holes, once-taut flesh sagging with age, and slipped on the skin-suit that would never grow up. He shivered with delight, running his hands along each sleeve, across the suit’s wide breast, down the crease of its inseam.
The little girl frowned at Sara, her brown eyes expectant, as if her maker owed her something. She sidled over to Sarasponda and spun the wheel atop her mother’s head.
A rainbow array of colors elided the capering madman, the little loom girl, the charred remnants of her former life. Against these, Sarasponda fixed a sturdy set of images in her minds’ eye: the old woman automaton and the man with screaming mouths holding Rumple down so Sarasponda could scrabble beneath his new suit and discover that first dangling thread, the one that could unravel him like a misshapen sweater.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Before her, Rumplestiltskin wriggled in the grip of her creations, his new skinsuit tearing beneath their hands, collapsing into gray flakes like ash, revealing embalmed limbs ancient as a mummy.
“How dare you tatter my birthday suit? Spin it anew, this instant!”
“My thread may never spin true,” said Sarasponda, “but I’m done with listening to you.” She knelt before him, feeling along the bony ridge of his chest to where his heart should be. Rumplestiltskin writhed, trying to rip himself free of the grandmother’s iron hands and the mouth-skinned man’s biting palms.
There. Her fingers found the loose thread they sought. She tugged, and he began to come undone.
“No,” he shrieked, “No, you can’t do that,” but she kept pulling, unwinding him from the heart outward. “You’ll need me again, just you wait. All creation is birthed in the shadow of despair. You’ll call on me, cry for me: ‘Where is my friend in the darkness, the one who wears a skin of horrors and speaks only truth, the one who sees life in all its ugliness? Everything you’ve ever spun was ripped from between my teeth.” She’d unmade his torso entirely; he was nothing but a pair of flailing arms and a fomenting mouth, flecks of spittle flying off his teeth. “You’re nothing without me.”
And then he was gone.
The door beneath her heart throbbed like someone pounding on it from the inside.
She wondered if she could create without him.
Of course she could.
From the point of her spindle, she rewove her childhood village free of princes old and young. From her fingers tripped the baker’s boy with his elongated chin and, bouncing on his knee, an adorable brother whose foot was a fine-sugar sifter. Then poured forth the blacksmith’s son with his tongs, the stern-faced little boy beside him wielding two hammer fists.
Last, she spun her home anew, and standing at the threshold, her parents. Her father scooped up the little loom-girl, who grinned saucily at her maker before allowing herself to be spun round in the air by her grandfather, who cried “Grandaughter!” and wept into the silkstrands of the child’s golden hair.