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Raunzel: Chapter One


By Jessica Kaye

Chapter One

My fingertips brushed against the uneven stones, tracing the faint outline of the door. I remembered the day Granny Aunt bricked it up—with me inside.

I had traced those seams more times than I could count. Years of wishes had worn the mortar smooth, but the barrier was no less permanent. I shuddered, the damp first floor of my tower only partially to blame.

It was for my own good, I reminded myself, stepping away from the wall. With a sigh, I stooped to retrieve my water pail and dipped it into the gap in the floor, scooping water from the river rushing by beneath. Bucket in one hand and a length of hair looped around the other, I marched up the stairs winding along the curved walls of my tower. The end of my braid dragged heavily behind me, my arms aching with the weight of the load. It could be worse; if I didn’t carry so much of my hair on my arm, I’d strain my neck.

My braid often made free movement difficult, hair snaking this way and that across the floor. I regularly failed the obstacle course of my own room. I constantly tripped or got my feet tangled. Sweeping was nearly impossible. The bristles of the broom caught strands of hair and would drag the whole braid with it. It could take all day just to clean the floor, fighting for every inch.

Not that I particularly liked cleaning, but I did relish the physical activity. Spending most of the day pricking a cloth with a needle gives one a special appreciation for movement.

I stopped to catch my breath on the top step.

Through my only window, the telltale rust of early autumn spattered the treetops. These were the months when the wildflowers would fade and die. Of the entire view, the tiny yellows and violets dotting the field far below were my favorite. My mother must have loved flowers, too, because she named me after one: Rapunzel.

I only knew my mother as a hazy memory of lemon tea and bedtime stories. I couldn’t remember my father at all. My closest living relative took me in as an orphan at the age of three.

It had been some friendly neighbor who held my hand and delivered me to my Great Aunt. I can’t remember the accident that took the lives of my parents the week before, but I remember walking up to the door of my new home, through the whitewashed fence and past pots of bright pink and gold flowers dotting a neatly tended garden.

The memory of her garden made me sigh. I missed that garden.

After setting a teacupful of water on the window sill, I covered the pail and set it in its rightful place. I straightened my bed, waiting for the sun to work its magic. It had taken one episode of singed hair to get fire banned from the tower forever. Sun-warmed tea was the only drink I could manage on chilly mornings.

Grabbing a roll out of the bread box, I munched on it, thinking. What else needed to be done? Granny Aunt would arrive within the hour. When she first left me in the tower, I dreaded her critical inspections of my room, her disapproving frown haunting me as I struggled to meet her exacting standards. In the last few years, her definition of clean had softened, but the damage was done. I couldn’t tolerate a dirty space. Shame plagued me when Granny Aunt’s visits caught me with a messy home, even though she never seemed to mind anymore.

I muscled my coils of hair aside to get at the homemade rug lying next to my bed, dragging it over to the window. I did a cursory check to make sure no one was in sight. Granny Aunt taught me to be wary of strangers and to look that there was no one outside to see me. No one was supposed to know I was here. I wasn’t worried; people never wandered near my tower. In years, no one but Granny Aunt had seen me. More often than not, I didn’t even bother to look anymore.

My arms ached by the time I replaced the rug and took up the feather duster. With a loving sigh, I gazed at my books. A weekly dusting kept them ready to be read at a moment's notice. After eagerly choosing a book and excitedly pulling it from the shelf, the last thing I wanted to do was stop and blow the dust off it.

Engrossing myself in a story was my only escape from the tower.

Not that I needed to escape. Granny Aunt had locked me away for my own safety. She was doing what was best for me. She had given me everything and I loved her. What more reason did I need to trust her than that?

At least, that’s what Granny Aunt kept telling me.

I started to sing as I dusted. I loved to sing. It was always long and loud, my own giggles frequently interrupting. No one was around to hear my off-key yodel; my isolation meant I could belt out any and every thought that came into my head at the top of my lungs. And I did.

I sang the titles of the books I dusted. I kept singing when I straightened up my sewing area, a corner of the room near the window. As I sewed, my carefully organized colored threads jumbled together, so every week I arranged the colors back into their proper places. I sang out the name of each color as I replaced it. “Rosy red flower, and blue like the sky! The green’s like spring, and yellow…is…the...SUN!” I held the note until my voice cracked, and I laughed aloud. My lyrics were never particularly profound, and they rarely rhymed.

I fiddled with the exact placement of my two chairs before finally setting them back into their original positions, facing each other, my seat angled to use the light coming in through the window to sew by. The other was Granny Aunt’s when she came to visit three times a week. The worn-out pillow she used to support her back occupied the chair in her absence.

I took my lukewarm tea from the windowsill and gulped it down, then grabbed the broom and started on the stairs. I had walked all the way down today and hadn’t thought to sweep while I went.

I finished another exhausting climb back up when I heard the fateful call.

“Rapunzel! Let down your hair!”

My hands moving from long habit, I looped my hair around the hook mounted on the wall. I couldn’t imagine the agony of Granny Aunt climbing my braid without the hook bearing the weight. The hair would be torn right out of my scalp.

Leaning my hip on the sill, I gathered up my braid and lugged it over the side and out the window. I watched it unwind, stopping short of the ground below.

Granny Aunt squinted up at me, then grabbed the rope of hair and began hauling herself up, hand over hand, kicking at the tower wall when she lost her footing.

At last, she reached the top. I grabbed her arm and helped pull her in. Out of breath from the climb, and she sat panting in her cushioned chair as I untied my hair from the hook.

“Are you all right, Granny Aunt?” I asked, worried. Granny Aunt had been having more difficulty climbing lately, and her moods were becoming more erratic.

“Yes, child, I am fine,” she wheezed. “I must just be tired today.”

I wasn’t so sure. She said that every time, and I couldn't help but think that she looked so...old. I sometimes worried about the day when Granny Aunt wouldn’t be able to make the climb. What would happen to me then?

I pushed the thought aside. I was sure Granny Aunt had a plan. She wouldn’t just leave me here. Right?

Once she had recovered, Granny Aunt seemed quite cheerful. We chatted for a while as she told me the latest gossip about people I didn’t know, and I showed her the quilt I had finished.

“Oh, my dear,” Granny Aunt breathed, stroking the quilt. The interlocking yellow and blue stars set off each other brightly, and she fingered the intricate needlework of the border. “You always do such beautiful work, but you’ve outdone yourself this time. I’m so proud!” Granny Aunt beamed at me as I carefully folded and wrapped the quilt for her to take. I took great satisfaction from the fact that my work made the money to keep food on our table. Granny Aunt’s stiff fingers hadn’t been able to handle a needle for years, though she would still knit. My hair helped, too. I fingered a strand at the thought. Every so often, Granny Aunt would cut a foot or two from my hair to sell. It seemed like a strange thing to do, but I didn’t argue. Granny Aunt knew best.

“They say the next kingdom over is stirring up trouble,” Granny Aunt said. “Canaeran. Remember them, that country to the South? There are reports of bandits. Barbarians, terrorizing the countryside! There’s all kinds of talk about them attacking travelers and plotting against the royal family. Some say they’re planning to assassinate the prince, some say they’re going to kidnap the queen. You never know, there are evil men everywhere!” She glanced around quickly, as if an evil man could jump out at us at any moment.

I only nodded dutifully. I had heard Granny Aunt extol the evils of men many times, my constant reminder of how dangerous the world outside my tower was. And she always ended her tirades with the ominous words, “Remember what happened to your grandmother.”

Granny Aunt didn’t stay long. She had to go to market today. Every week for as long as I could remember, she took our work to the market to sell. When I lived with her—in a real house—I used to beg to go with her to market, promising never to leave her side. I would plead. I would swear not to talk to anyone. I would reason with her: wouldn’t it be easier for her if I carried all the sweaters and scarves and blankets? But, Granny Aunt was adamant. I was not allowed.

We ate lunch together, then I tied my hair again to the hook so Granny Aunt could climb down. I leaned out the window to watch the little woman hobble away. I was worried about her.

I untied my hair and hauled it back in. The day had warmed some, but was still cool. I leaned back in my chair and pulled my hair onto my lap, covering my chilled toes with it as I reached for the book I had started the day before. Maybe I should have been starting a new quilt, but I was tired from cleaning and felt I deserved a break. Sighing contentedly as I found my place, I let my mind settle into the fairy tale. A faraway place, outside the tower walls...

I had only turned the third page when I heard, “Rapunzel! Let down your hair!” Had Granny Aunt forgotten something? At least her voice sounded stronger than it had before. She must be feeling better, to want to climb again. I tied my hair and pushed it out the window again, eyes not leaving the page. It was getting to a really good part, and I knew Granny Aunt would understand. She was just as bad when it came to books. A hundred times she told me that reading was one of the most important skills a woman could have. The very first thing she ever taught me was the alphabet. She dearly loved her books, and was determined that I would love them, too.

I leaned back against the wall, turning another page. “Did you forget something?” I asked, only then looking up at the figure climbing through the window.

The book fell from my hands as I choked. “You’re not Granny Aunt!”

A man stood in my tower.

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