Please note that ‘Spinster’ in the title is using the original meaning of the word, i.e. a woman who spins, rather than the modern meaning of an unmarried woman.
This is the third story that I wrote for Christmas 2018, this one for my mum. The story she chose as the jumping off point was Rumpelstiltskin. At the time, I thought this was quite an odd choice as Rumpelstiltskin is not the most savoury of characters. But my mum explained that she chose this because the heroine of the story (the miller’s daughter) saved herself.
I had never thought of the story in that way and had to go back and re-read it to pick up on what she meant.
If you are not familiar with the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, it starts with a miller boasting about how his daughter is such a good spinner that she can spin straw into gold. The boast makes its way to the ears of the king who demands that this talent be demonstrated. The miller’s daughter is locked in a tower in the palace overnight with a spinning wheel and a lot of straw and ordered to spin the straw into gold by morning, otherwise she will be executed. In her despair, an imp appears in the tower with her and offers to spin the straw into gold for her in exchange for her first-born child. Some versions of the story have her protest at this, but ultimately the agreement is struck, and the gold is spun. In the morning that king is so impressed with her skill that he marries her (again, some versions have her marrying his son instead).
Some time later, she has a child and the imp returns to claim his payment. She begs him not to take the child and eventually the imp agrees he will give up his claim if she can guess his name in three days. On the final day, she is in the woods and stumbles upon the imp leaping over a fire, reciting a rhyme that speaks of his pending victory over her. Upon hearing this, she learns his name is Rumpelstiltskin and so she is able to save her child.
This is a rather condensed retelling of the tale, but you get the idea. The miller’s daughter gets herself out of trouble when others have dropped her in it.
The story below takes place many years after Rumpelstiltskin has danced out of the Queen’s life and at a time when her kingdom is in trouble.
The Spinster Queen – A Lesson Learned from Careless Boasting
The wheel turned. It squeaked in time with her foot working the pedal, an oddly soothing sort of music in the small, quiet attic. The rest of the palace was a hive of activity today. With dignitaries arriving from the neighbouring countries to discuss treaties and to carve up the kingdom as a way of satisfying its debts, every servant, courtier, and merchant was scurrying about the place.
The Queen creased her brow in concentration as she guided more straw into the spinning wheel. She sighed as only straw wound its way around the bobbin at the other end.
How did he do it? she thought.
Her foot left the pedal as she closed her eyes, her thoughts tracking back over twenty years to when she had, as a girl, sat in this very room in despair. The creature had found her there. His skills had saved her in those desperate times. For that, she would be forever grateful to him. But his price had been unbearable – her first-born child. It was her wits that had saved her then, and her wits she relied on now. She did not dare think about what could have happened if she had not found his hovel, seen the creature leaping the flames, reciting his taunting verse:
Tonight, tonight, my plans I make,
Tomorrow, tomorrow, the baby I take,
The Queen will never win the game,
For Rumpelstiltskin is my name!
The name was forever in her memory. A reminder of what could be lost with one careless boast. Her father had learned that lesson, almost with her life. Rumpelstiltskin learned it with the loss of his name. She had not seen or heard from him since that day. She could not help wondering what had become of him; whether the discovery of his name had led to his death, or whether he had taken his tricks to some other unsuspecting kingdom to beguile and extort in a new land.
Either way, she knew he had not returned to her kingdom. She knew this because of the state in which she had found the hovel not three moons past.
Everything had been just as she remembered it: the pit in the centre where the flame had leapt, and Rumpelstiltskin had leapt higher; the blanket by the wall for sleep; the chair in the corner and the spinning wheel beside it. Her heart had skipped in her chest when she saw it there, untouched and unmoved. Its needle had not rusted, and the wood had not rotted away in the intervening years. It had been waiting here for her. Waiting to be found when it was needed most.
The day she had found it was the day her husband, the King, had told her of the sorry state the kingdom was in once more. Thanks to poor harvests and expensive wars, the kingdom had not been in such dire straits since the day they had married.
The Queen had been expecting him to turn to her for a solution. She had expected him to ask her to make more gold. When he did not, she wondered why, but did not ask. She suspected he had known for a while the skills she had displayed had not been her own, but his affection for her had kept him quiet on the matter.
That day she had gone for a walk in the woods alone, something she was not often permitted to do anymore. The woods were no place for a Queen, with bandits and wolves lurking in the shadows, but she had insisted. She needed time to think over what the King had told her. Surely there was a way to save the kingdom.
The Lord Chamberlain had suggested a marriage alliance. Her second son had just turned eighteen, and her eldest daughter would be fourteen next month. The thought of marrying either of them off for profit was abhorrent to her.
As she had wandered the woods that day, her feet had taken her to the hovel. To the spinning wheel. To the one item in the whole kingdom, perhaps the entire realm, that could be her salvation.
With great difficulty, she had carried the spinning wheel back to the palace and up to the lonely attic. There, she had sat day after day for nearly three months, spinning and spinning but to no avail.
She was convinced the wheel was magic. It had to be. It had not aged in twenty years, and the circumstances and the timing of her finding it could not be ignored. But as yet, that magic seemed to be buried deep within.
With a sigh, she stood from the crooked wooden chair that she kept by the wheel. She didn’t care that her silk gown was creased from being sat down for so long. She stretched out her arms and arched her back, more worried about the creases in her body than in her dress.
“What was your secret?” she wondered out loud, talking to the silent spinning wheel in front of her. “Was it his power or yours that made the gold?”
The wheel did not reply. She hadn’t expected it to.
She gazed out the small round window at the courtiers gathered in the yard below. There was a sombre look to them, as they waited for the King’s announcement. It was several hours yet until he was to address the people. Some looked hopeful that his words would be of good news and comfort. Others seemed resigned to the kingdom’s fate.
Taking the bobbin off the wheel, the Queen started to pull the strands of straw free from its bind. She inspected each length as they came loose. Still yellow. Still straw. No sign of gold. But they were thinner, she noted, and woven together into one long string. Her eyes narrowed as she looked closer at it, trying to see the points where each piece of straw joined the next. She found none. The string was flawless.
Her eyes drifted back to the wheel as thoughts cycled in her mind. With the string of straw uncoiled at her feet, she placed the bobbin back in it cradle and settled in her chair once more.
She took up the end of the string and carefully guided it into the wheel. Her foot worked the pedal back and forth, turning the squeaky wheel, exactly as she had done for the last few hours, and every day before. With one hand, she guided more string on to the wheel. With the other, she made sure it did not tangle as it rotated and gathered on the bobbin.
The string was long and fine already, and as she started, she saw nothing but yellow gathering again as she continued to pedal and spin.
She closed her eyes, silently pleading with the wheel’s magic to work into the string. Hoping, desperately, that her time had not been a waste. That her instinct had been right.
After a few moments, she dared to open her eyes again. Her breath caught in her chest. Her eyes widened at the sight. Shining up from the bobbin was the unmistakable gleam of gold.
The Queen gasped. Her foot stopped turning the wheel as she glanced quickly around the attic to see if he was watching her. To see if he had come back to grant her wish and demand a higher price than before.
But she was alone. No creature lurked in the shadows. No taunting rhyme echoed in her ears. She turned back to the spinning wheel and held up the string of gold to the light. This was her work. She had turned the straw into gold. She had drawn the magic out of the wheel. She would be the kingdom’s salvation.
For a moment, she wanted to run to the palace balcony and proclaim to the world what she had done. As she stood up, though, she hesitated. Rumpelstiltskin’s words played in her mind:
The Queen will never win the game…
This was not the time for careless boasting. The length of gold on the wheel was not even a yard long yet.
Bubbling with excitement, she settled herself in the chair once more, smoothing some of the wrinkles from her dress as her foot found the pedal. She turned the wheel and guided the string once more.
Her smile was wide and joyous as the bobbin filled with gold. It sparkled and winked at her as she continued.
Before long, she had three full bobbins of gold. She sat back, satisfied that this was no mere trick. She took a penknife from her pocket and carefully cut a small length of gold and carried it reverently to the door. As she stepped out into the corridor, she hailed the first servant she saw.
“Fetch the King at once,” she ordered, placing the piece of gold into the young girl’s hand.
As the girl hurried off to find the King, the Queen returned to her attic. There was more straw to be spun and no time to waste.
She sat down in her chair; the crooked chair she remembered from all those years ago. With a smile of quiet confidence, she picked up a handful of straw and pressed it into the mechanism as her foot began to pedal.
And so, the wheel turned.
Copyright © Rachael Farrimond 2020