The Eberaldi Tree
by Deborah Cimo
Long ago there lived a miller and his wife, a lovely girl with beautiful auburn hair and cornflower eyes. They longed for a child but, alas, could not have one.
Years went by and one day, the miller came home from his mill on the outskirts of a small but thriving village, only to find his wife weeping.
“My Darling,” he said, thinking it was for cause of her barrenness that she wept. “We can have a child. I know we can.”
“No, Husband Dear. We never shall. We shouldn’t.”
He looked at her, a small knot in his throat, for he not only wanted a child, but he wanted his wife to be happy. “We’re young yet. Why do you say we shouldn’t?”
“I... I am barren for a reason,” she said.
He took her in his arms for he was a tender man and whispered comfort in her ear.
“I want none of your comfort!” she snapped, pulling away. “Just leave me alone!”
What could the poor man do but walk away? He left her alone in their room except to bring her a cup of soup, slice of bread and a wedge of cheese for supper. He knocked on their closed door and said, “I’ve brought you soup.”
But there was no answer and so he left it on the table by the door and went away. Later that night he came back to see her supper still untouched, but a note lying beside it.
Please forgive me. I am just not myself. Perhaps I never was. All I want are three green leaves from our neighbor’s eberaldi tree. If you would bring me some, I will feel better.
The miller stared at the note and knocked again at the closed door. He figured there was no way around it, and sighed deep. The green leaves from the eberaldi tree weren’t such a problem. If only the tree didn’t belong to the witch. Now there was the problem. She had threatened, early on, that if they so much as touched any of her garden, they would pay. She would make them pay!
But which is worse, an unhappy wife, or the wrath of a witch? Besides, he was tired of living under the threat of the witch. He decided to make his wife happy. So late, under the stars in a black night, he crept to the edge of the wall that separated the witch’s garden from theirs. And he climbed the thick vines on the wall, carefully and slowly till he reached the lowest branch of the eberaldi tree. Then, snap! One. Snap! Two. Snap! Three. The fragrance of melon and vanilla met his senses like a hidden delight. Leaves in his pocket he slithered down unseen and silent back to his wife and their closed bedroom door.
Softly he knocked. Three quick raps. “I’ve got the leaves, Aubergine.”
No answer. Was she sleeping? A rustle behind the door told him otherwise.
“I’ll leave them on the table.” He said and he walked away.
In the morning, he rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and yawned. At their door again, he saw the leaves were gone, the door open, his wife seated, humming a gentle tune and combing her long red hair at the mirror.
“Darling, thank you! Things will be fine now. See?” She patted her flat belly and grinned. “Come here,” she said, crooking her finger for him to come. And he did.
The months went by and sure as the sun rose every morning, her belly grew. Aubergine blossomed and grew more beautiful as the time drew near.
When the baby came, it was a girl, promising to be even more lovely than her mother. But with the baby’s birth, the mother withered almost at once, lost her voice, sight and hearing. Having no means to request more eberaldi leaves, she died shortly after.
The miller, overwrought with grief, called his daughter by her mother’s name. “You will take her place in my heart,” he said. Immediately as he said this, a cloud of green smoke appeared and the witch from next door materialized before his eyes.
“Oh no she won’t!” the hag cackled. “She’s mine! Three eberaldi leaves for a child!”
The miller was too shocked to respond. He’d all but forgotten his midnight forage. Within moments, like the blinking of an eye, the witch grabbed his daughter and disappeared as quickly as she came.
He pounded on her door but the dull thud told him she was gone. He searched for his baby girl everywhere but she was nowhere he could find. The woods beyond the village were dark and dense and he searched so deep he never found his way out. Soon the garden shriveled and disappeared. Everything was gone except the eberaldi tree.
Years passed and the girl, Rapunzel by name, sat at her mirror, plaiting her hair and humming a tune much the same as her mother had done so many years before. A voice from below interrupted her.
“Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair.”
“Coming,” came Rapunzel’s lovely voice. Yards and yards of a dark auburn braid tumbled down an ivory wall. The witch climbed the silken weave and stepped inside the iron balcony at the high window. “What have you brought me today, Mother?” Rapunzel asked.
“Goodies from the garden, My Girl.” The witch cackled and set down her sling of flowers.
“Might I go and see it today, Mother?” Rapunzel asked.
“Not today, Rapunzel. Here let me brush.” The witch loosened the braid and brushed the auburn curls. She brushed and brushed. The locks were longer than the room and curled around and around. She listened as she brushed, as Rapunzel sang beautiful tunes in her low, rich voice.
After a while, the witch said, “I must go before the sun sets, My Dear.” I shall return tomorrow.” And Rapunzel tumbled down her hair so the witch could slide to the ground, forty feet below.
Everyday the witch came with, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair.” Everyday Rapunzel asked the same question, “Might I go and see it today, Mother?” And everyday the witch answered, “Not today, Rapunzel.” But Rapunzel grew tired of the same question, the same answer day after day after day.
One day, a prince, passing by stopped when he heard a sound coming from somewhere not too distant. A voice, unlike any he’d heard, was singing the most beautiful songs he’d ever heard. Songs that reminded him of his childhood, a time he loved dearly. Carefully, so as not to lose the sound, he followed it to a tower, tall with one high window. He waited in the garden beneath, full of ivy, ferns, lilacs, and lavender. The crowning glory to all this beauty was a tree in the middle of the garden. A tree with deep green leaves and white branches that smelled like sweet melons and vanilla.
He listened, then heard a rustle from beyond the garden and leapt over the low wall out of sight.
A bent, haggard looking woman appeared and kissed the tree before calling out, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.” The beautiful voice hushed and a roll of the thickest braided hair he’d ever seen came tumbling down the wall. He watched the witch tug at the hair but she slipped and as she kicked out to catch herself, some branches from the tree broke off and fell to the ground, unbeknownst to her.
“Perfect!” He thought. He heard the same questions asked, the same answers given and waited, winding the fallen branches into a fragrant wreath.
When he heard the witch preparing to leave, he leaped beyond the wall and out of sight. When the witch was long gone, he tried it. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”
“Wha... who’s there?” Rapunzel called.
“An Admirer. I have a gift for you.” He said. “From the garden.”
“Oh, the garden. Please,” she said tumbling down her unbraided locks, “Come in.” He climbed and stepped in the window, undone by the beautiful girl that stood before him.
“What about the witch?” he asked.
“The witch. She said she wouldn’t be back until tomorrow, right?”
“Um, uh, no. She only comes once a day.”
“She’s not really your mother, you know.” He said giving her the wreath he’d tucked in his belt. “I made this for you. It smells as sweet as you sing.”
“Oh, I’ve never smelled it before!” In her delight, she didn’t hear his first comment. “It’s like the sweetest memory.” And she held it in her hands.
“Here, may I?” And he took the wreath and slipped it on her head as a crown. “Breathtaking!”
Rapunzel admired it in the mirror but said, “You must go now. The sun is about to set.”
“Yes, I suppose I must. But I will return. I finally found you. If you get restless, eat three leaves in the wreath. Now that I know you, nothing can keep me away.”
Return he did, every day just after the witch left, he would call for his love and she would let down her hair. He brought her things from the garden, branches and bouquets dripping with all sorts of heather and lavender, roses, wildflowers, and sweet-smelling herbs. Every sunset as he left, he took with him his garden gifts so the witch wouldn’t find out. Every gift except the original eberaldi wreath.
The witch never seemed to notice. One day, as she was brushing Rapunzel’s hair, a breeze kicked through the window and blew the wreath out from behind the curtain into the corner.
“What is this?” the witch screamed. “Who has given you this? And eberaldi leaves at that! Who, Girl, tell me, who?” She took the wide-eyed Rapunzel by the arm and dragged her to the corner. “Just look at those leaves! Where did you get them?”
But Rapunzel just looked at the witch and clamped her lips closed, biding her time. It was growing late, the afternoon sun lengthened along the room. She looked at the witch, who was no more mother to her than she herself was human. “You’d better leave, Mother. The light is fading. And you’ve seen what happens at night. But you’ve never seen me angry yet. Leave now, Mother! Because I am angry and you WILL NOT LIKE IT!”
“You think I can’t handle a wisp of a thing like you? Don’t underestimate me Girlie!” “No, Witch!” Rapunzel’s eyes turned red. “It is you who’d better not underestimate me!”
“No,” the witch gasped, the truth starting to dawn on her. “You couldn’t. Not unless you ate the leaves!” And she grabbed the wreath and threw it out the window. It sailed to the feet of the prince, who was waiting at the foot of the tower. He picked it up, still green, still plump just as he’d first made it. Three small leaves were missing.
He heard a growl that made him cry out, “Rapunzel, Let me up! Rapunzel!”
But there was no answer. A fearsome ripping sounded, then a crunch and something squished in the semi-darkness. He tried climbing but the going was slow for the stones were almost smooth and there was little footing to be had. Finally, he called out again, “Rapunzel!” and her hair was dropped from above his head. He grabbed it and sprang up in moments, leaping into the window.
Rapunzel sat there, licking her bloody fingers, the witch mangled and broken in pieces at her feet.
“Oh good. It was only you. I almost thought she’d gotten you instead!” And he tossed the eberaldi wreath in her lap. She grabbed a leaf and nibbled. “Shall we?” They walked to the balcony and stood at the edge. He wrapped her hair around them again and again until they were tightly woven together. Their arms turned into wings as they jumped, soaring out over the endless garden and into the night sky.
Copyright © 2005 by Bewildering Stories on behalf of the author