The morning you meet them, you nick the back of your hand with your spade. You freeze, catch your breath.
You are in your garden, on your knees, your skirt caked in soil, when the idea passes through you like shadows in a river. From now on, you will change the way you tell your stories because, from experience, you know that no story is ever the same each time.
You think you feel something soft flit over your hand as you return to your morning’s work, all the colors of your vegetable garden dug up around you. You’ve pulled: cabbages, peas, turnips, squash, carrots, white asparagus, fennel.
Earlier that morning, at the kitchen table, you prepared vials of black vinegar, jars of mint jelly. You poured a dish of milk for the cats, took your four children to the meadow. Watching them chase the geese while you stood in the middle of the field, you again felt something move over you. Like a woman’s long hair, you thought then. Maybe just wind.
As you walk into town, your vegetable baskets growing heavy on your arms, you notice the palace in the distance, rising from the fog. You can smell the coats of the farmer’s horses, hear the small stream that reminds you, somehow, of mirrors, and soon you forget about the cut on your hand.
At the market selling the vegetables from your basket, you meet the first one. You try to smile when he tells you he has heard of you, heard that you tell stories and that all of them are good. You feel your face flush because you are a no-nonsense woman who needs no flattery. As you shake your head, several hairs fall from your bonnet and into your eyes.
After he buys all of the vegetables you carry, he invites you to his brother’s house and you agree to go, of course, you say ja. You are an old woman, after all, and you can tell this man does not take kindly to being turned down.
The man’s brother offers you: tea, coffee, fruit pudding, chocolate cake, apple tortes.
The brothers look very similar, you think—silver hair, colorless mouths like wooden buttons—only the man who brought you here has a nose that once, perhaps, had been broken.
You take a seat, a torte, and already your head is starting to pound like a chorus of awful laughing. You hear the voices in your stories—all of these your voice and not your voice at all—talking at the same time like you have been stuffed in a room with all of them complaining.
Then, at the window, a goose. You hear it first, though. Going tap tap tap with its bill.
It is a large goose, its feather coat the color of dirty water. Its eyes are gummy bright blue. For a moment, you think it’s grinning at you.
The man tells you what he and his brother are doing. How the two of them are collecting stories and wonder if you have any stories to tell, you must! We have heard of you, the man says. Together we both, most definitely, have heard of you and your stories.
“How can you tell them the same way every time?”
“How?” you say. “Because I’ve got them down pat.”
While the man who took you here is going on and on, two geese, then three, appear in the window. They have nestled in the flower boxes and are looking in.
The brother offers you a glass of water—his hand, you observe, is pale and liver-spotted, like a block of old cheese—and you are so thirsty, your mouth is so dry! You take the glass and immediately gulp all the water down, remembering, as you do, your cats at home: how they lapped at their milk dish like they had never had it before, and all their lives they have been so hungry for it, they hardly knew what to do.
More and more geese appear at the windows, there must be close to thirty of them or more. Lightly, they begin hitting their heads against the panes—
All of these bandit faces with white plumage.
All of these large feathery bodies like soft winter blankets.
You begin to tell the brothers a story.
Always, your youngest child giggles in delight at this one. Often, he reaches for your face, your bonnet, both hands spread wide, as if reaching for the moon.
‘Once upon a time, there was a princess and her servant. On a journey, the servant was very cruel to the princess. She mocked her; refused to fetch her water when she was thirsty, to share the bread and apples and seeds when it was dark and her body hungered for food.
‘One day, when the princess was bathing, the servant stole the princess’s robes and put them on. Things would be different from now on, she told her, and her voice to the princess’s ears sounded like an awful rain cloud. She told the princess to wear her servant’s clothes, and time passed like rain after a rainy day; like mud slopped along the bottoms of your boots.
‘When the princess and servant were both dressed in the others’ garb, they finished the journey to the palace. There, the servant met and married the king, and the real princess was told she would be the Goose Girl, since the king who was tricked by her costume could tell she was good with small, delicate creatures, whereas already his wife was proving not, and so it was only natural that when his wife bore children, he asked the new Goose Girl to care for them….’
You are telling the brothers this story, only changing it as you go, when you notice that one of the geese has now wedged its way through the window and onto the ledge. The brother is whirling his finger in his ear and doesn’t notice while the man who found you at the market chews on a forkful of cake. There is frosting on his lips, you observe, while both brothers are standing with their hips cocked to one side, but opposite sides, like they are echoes in a mirror.
‘One morning, when the Goose Girl could no longer take the cruelty of her new queen, who fed her only hunks of bread and cups of scalding water, and spit on her behind her husband’s back whenever she could, the Goose Girl laid the children into the empty potato sacks she found in the cellar. Onto the backs of the geese, she set the king and the new queen’s four children. Through the forest, the Goose Girl and her geese, carrying the babes on their backs, went.’
Then all at once, your story is stopped short because the birds at the windows come spooling through—first a wheelbarrow’s worth, and then dozens of them flapping or scuttling or tumbling into the room.
You settle back in your chair, nibble a corner from your torte.
All of the windows are breaking; the glass is being strewn across the floor like sugar. You can feel the feathers filling the room all soft and brown like old snow.
The geese peck at the basket of vegetables the brothers have bought. One of them drags a turnip around like a pipe, while the man who has brought you here has, in his distress, given his brother a nosebleed.
You blink several times, file a piece of torte from your tooth and let it dissolve on your tongue.
Years ago, you came upon your daughter sitting in the middle of the forest. She was holding an opened book in her palms, and just sat there in her small red dress and white apron reading aloud to herself, while the leaves of the trees seemed to flap, then shoot into sails. Beneath your pointy black shoes, you had felt their roots groan.
Now, you’re beginning to grow tired of all the fuss. The brothers swing around at the wings, you are in a cyclone of arms and legs and feathers, and you see it is hard to tell who is who, what is what.
The brothers do not hear you when you make your way to the door, your geese at your ankles. They don’t notice you leave at all.
Once, there were two brothers who wanted to write all of your stories down.
Once, there were two brothers who were going to preserve your mouth in a book.
The pages would be bound and smell like wood in the springtime and happy animals, they promised, and your stories would be printed in the richest of inks. Your mouth would keep talking and telling, and the words would come out of the page for the children to gobble down.
Children grow old. You know this for a fact.
One day, your daughter will grow big and tall and strong, and maybe or maybe not recall the stories she consumed that day in the forest, the many she took in after hours spent listening to you recite your own. So many things stuffed in her head!
Stories are so important when you become a bundle of bones, you know.
One goose flaps up onto your back, brushes its bill against your ear. It presses itself there, wings flat against your shoulder blades, like perhaps it wants a ride, it could be wounded—or no, you understand now: it is attaching itself to you. How warm the goose feathers are against your neck. How soft the down of goose wings is!
It’s getting late. The cats will be missing you.
Open your mouth, the goose says.
And you do.
Theodora Ziolkowski’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Gargoyle Magazine, and Short FICTION (England), among other journals and anthologies. She lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with her fiancé and their tortoiseshell cat, Circe.