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The Goose Girl

Chapter 1

She was born Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she did not open her eyes for three days.

The pacing queen directed ministers and physicians to the crib. They listened to her breathing and her hummingbird heart, felt her fierce grip and her tiny fingers soft as salamander skin. All was sound. But her eyes did not open.

For three days the grave-faced attendants came and went. They prodded her, lifted her lids, slipped thick yellow syrups down her throat.

"You are a princess," the queen whispered to her ear. "Open your eyes."

The baby cooed in her sleep.

When the third day had worn away to the lake blue of evening, a hand parted the nursery curtains. All was still for the night. The queen dozed on the bed. The baby in her crib dreamed of milk, her round, perfect lips nursing in sleep. A woman in a fern green robe pulled aside the curtains and tiptoed across the carpets. She slid her callused hands under the infant's back and head, held her up, and grinned.

"Did you call me out of my house to come and tell you stories?" she said. "I will, my fat one, if you will listen."

The queen awoke to the sounds of the rocking chair creaking and a voice singing about magpies and pigeons. She stood up, ready to call to the guards, then saw that it was her own sister who sang to the baby, and that the baby was looking back at her aunt with wide eyes.

It was the aunt who shortened the crown princess's name to Ani.

On clear days she took Ani to the north edge of the palace grounds where no wall had been built. That far out, the garden was allowed to stray out of its ordered beds and rows and merge with the occasional copse of ash and pine. The aunt felt easier there, and she held her niece's small hand and named all she saw.

"You see the bird on the tallest branch there, the one with a yellow breast? She's migrating farther north now that the weather is warmer. The bluewing there is looking for twigs and says he has found himself a picky mate."

Ani began to speak sentences at one year. The aunt knew too well how Kildenreans disliked anything outside the common, and she tried to keep Ani's progress hidden. But the household staff noted it, and rumors began that perhaps the queer green-clad nurse-mary possessed unnatural methods of awakening a child's words.

The queen was uncomfortable with the talk and careful never to call the new nurse-mary "sister." But the king was too stubborn to worry much. "Why shouldn't she be a quick learner? She is our daughter, of pure of blood as are ever born in this world, and has every right to speak before her time."

But the king saw little of his firstborn, and the queen even less. Calib-Loncris was born, the first son, and then Napralina-Victery, who from birth so resembled her mother that the nurse-marys were inclined to curtsy to the crib. With the parents' attention parted, the aunt became Ani's constant companion.

In cold weather or spring rain, the aunt sat on the nursery floor and told Ani stories of fantastic and faraway things: a land where mares pawed gold nuggets from the earth and chewed them in order to breathe out music; a baker who baked birds from dough and sent them out the window in search of a treasured pot of apricot preserves; a mother who loved her baby so fiercely, she put him in a tight locket around her neck so that he might never grow up. The aunt sang songs again and again until Ani learned the words, her toddler's voice as dry and delicate as a sparrow's call.

A day in early summer when Ani was five, the two companions sat in an aspen's dappled shade on the edge of the garden swan pond. Ani loved the birds that were as big as she and begged them to eat bread out of her hands. When the bread was all gone, they shrugged their wings and skronked at her.

"What did they say?"

"They wanted to know," said the aunt, "was there more bread for the eating or should they go back to the pond."

Ani looked at the nearest swan straight in one eye. "No more bread. You may go."

The swan shrugged his wings again.

"What does that mean?"

"I don't think he speaks your language, duckling." The aunt turned her profile and one eye to the swan and made a sound like the swan spoke, not quite a honk and almost a whine. The swan padded back to the pond.

Ani watched with a solemn expression and after a moment repeated the sounds she had heard. "Was that right?"

"Perfect," said the aunt. "Say that again."

She repeated the noise and smiled. The aunt looked at her thoughtfully, the corners of her mouth tight with suppressed excitement.

"Does that make you happy?" asked the aunt.

"Yes," said Ani with little-girl certainty.

The aunt nodded and took Ani into her lap to tell her a story about beginnings. Ani leaned her head against her aunt's chest and listened to both the story and the sound of the story.

"The Creator spoke the first word, and all that lived on the earth awoke and stretched and opened their mouths and minds to say the word. Through many patterns of stars, they all spoke to one another, the wind to the hawk, the snail to the stone, the frog to the reeds. But after many turnings and many deaths, the languages were forgotten. Yet the sun still moves up and down, and the stars still shift in the sky, and as long as there are movement and harmony, there are words."

Ani leaned her head back and, squinting, tried to look at the sun. She was young and had not yet learned that things like seeing the sun were impossible.

"Some people are born with the first word of a language resting on their tongue, though it may take some time before they can taste it. There are three kinds, three gifts. Did you know your mother has the first? The gift of people-speaking. Many rulers do. You see? And people listen to them, and believe them, and love them. I remember as children it was difficult to argue with your mother—her words confused me, and our parents always believed her over me. That can be the power of people-speaking.

"The first gift is the only reason this little land was not taken over by other kingdoms long ago. Rulers like your mother have talked themselves out of war for centuries. It can be powerful and good, and it can also be dangerous. I, unfortunately, wasn't born knowing people-speaking." The aunt laughed, and the surface of her eyes gleamed with memory.

"Do I have it, Aunt?"

"I don't know," she said. "Perhaps not. But there are other gifts. The second is the gift of animal-speaking. I've met a few who are able to learn animal languages, but like me, those people feel more comfortable near the mountains, among the trees and places where animals are not in cages. It's not always a pleasant life, sparrow. Others are suspicious of those who can speak with wild things. Once there were many of us in Kildenree, I believe, but now, so few remember.

"The third is lost or rare. I've never known one with the gift of nature-speaking, though there are tales that insist it once was. I strain my ears and my eyes and my insides--" she tapped her temple lightly-- "but I don't know the tongue of fire or wind or tree. But someday, I think, someone will discover how to hear it again."

The aunt sighed and smoothed her niece's yellow hair. "Not many know the story of the three gifts, Ani. You must remember it. It's important to know stories. I felt the earth shift to make a place for you when you were born, and I came to tell you stories while you are young. And like me, you were born with a word on your tongue. I don't know what word it was. You will grow older and discover it one day without my help."

"Maybe fire or wind or tree?" said Ani.

"Maybe," said the aunt. "I don't know those tongues. I can't help you discover them."

Ani patted her aunt's cheek as though she were the elder of the two. "But you can teach me to speak with the swans."

They returned each day to the pond. When no gardener worked within sight or courtier walked near, Ani practiced the sounds she heard.

"They don't have such a complicated world as we do and need so few words," said the aunt. "Did you hear? The tall one there was greeting the one with the tail feathers missing. They are brothers. If they were sisters, the sound would go up at the end."

Ani listened. "I just heard it. Like this." She mimicked the greeting, drawing up the last sound slightly.

"Very good," said the aunt. "You know, most people wouldn't notice that. You can hear the tiny differences and imitate them—that's your talent. But it takes work, too. You have to learn what it all means, like studying any foreign language. And it's not just sounds. Watch how that one there bobs her head and moves her tail. And holds still. It all means something."

On walks, the aunt called down the little birds from ash and beech perches, but they were anxious, busy things and would not stay long from their trees. Ani learned some of what the chickens in their coops and pigeons on their ledges complained and cooed to one another. They visited the small gray falcons and gold hawks when the hunt-master was out, and the wide-eyed owls in the barn rafters.

On one walk back from their wild garden, they passed the corrals. The warm, earthy smell drew Ani close, and she stood on a fence rail and watched the stable-master ride a graceful gray. She pointed.

"I want to speak to that one. The horse."

"What a smart girl to think to ask." She leaned behind Ani, her cheek pressed against her niece's, and watched the animal run. "I have tried to speak to so many animals, Ani. The wild ones like wolves and deer will not stay still to listen or be listened to. Lizards, toads, rats, and all the little animals—I think perhaps their language is too simple for us bigger animals to understand. The domestic creatures like dogs, cows, and cats are sleepy in their comfort and used to communicating with people on our own terms. And birds, as you have seen, are perfect for speech. Always wild and yet always listening, and the larger ones especially, for they speak more slowly.

"But the horse, ah, Ani, I will tell you a story. Several years ago, I helped a friend with his foaling mare, and the little colt fell into my arms. I heard him, just after he tumbled out, emit a mournful little sound, something like ‘Yulee.' His name. Horses are born with their own name on their tongue, you see? I repeated it back to him, and he heard me, and ever since he can hear me and I can hear him. It's a horse's way to give you the key to their speech once and never repeat it. I've tried the same with a calf and a litter of kittens and a kid-goat, but only the colt has responded. What do you think of that?"

"I would like a horse friend," said Ani. "Very much." Perhaps a horse would not hit her with play swords, like her little brother, or treat her like a glass vase and then whisper behind her back, like the other palace children.

The aunt shook her head. "You're too young. Sometime, some year, when you're older and you can go to the stables and your mother will not question why. For now, you must listen to your winged friends."

Ani was eager to learn the voice of every bird that nested on the palace grounds, but the swan pond drew her return day after day. She loved to watch them swim so slowly that the water hardly rippled and watch every silent, mild movement shimmer into meaning. Soon her throat and tongue could make nearly all the sounds of the swans, and she trumpeted gleefully.

"Hush a moment, Ani," said the aunt.

The key-mistress and her daughter, Selia, passed by the pond on the walk to the gardens. The aunt waved, and the key-mistress nodded. Her little girl was pretty and poised, with hair already to her waist. She walked with hands clasped in front and eyes centered on the path ahead. As a little girl she had been prone to violent tantrums, notorious for turning all shades of pink and purple and for kicking the floor like a landed fish. But she was seven now and prim as a court lady.

"Hello, Crown Princess," said Selia. "We are going to the gardens. Come for tea sometime."

"Um, yes, thank you." Ani was not used to being addressed by other children, and besides, this strange little girl had always made her feel uneasy—at once willing to do whatever Selia asked and eager to escape her notice. The same way, in fact, that she felt around her mother. The aunt raised one eyebrow in the blue shadow of her hat and watched the pair stroll away.

"That one has the gift of people-speaking," she said. "It can be powerful. Mark me and watch her."

Ani watched the serious little girl stroll away and tried to remember. People speaking. That one has.

That year, when the trees burned the fire of late summer into their leaves and the ground mist was a ghost of the river, long and wet and cold, the aunt looked from her window to the walls around her and imagined another winter inside them. She began to see the world as a bird sees bars, and she scratched her arms beneath her sleeves.

The aunt took Ani to the shore of the swan pond where the lazy-armed trees dipped themselves into their own reflections and the aspens' hard little leaves shook in the wind with a noise like snapping fingers. The aunt pointed north, where few people lived and trees grew thick and prickly green all year, and where the girl could not follow.

"I'm going home," she said. She kissed Ani's forehead, but her eyes did not leave the purple horizon. "Don't forget all you have learned. If your mother discovers what I have taught you, she will take it away. I know her. The only thing she has ever wanted is shiny and fits around her brow. Still, you are better off with her, gosling. I would not wish my solitude on you. Stay and learn to be happy."

The princess sat on a stone, rested her arm on the back of a swan, and thought how her chest felt like a gutted walnut shell, and wondered if that sensation might last forever. She watched her aunt walk away, disappearing into a tiny spot of green that the eye tricked into a shadow of a rock a long way in the distance.

The next morning, Ani was dismayed to see she had been given a new companion, a weak-hearted nurse-mary with skin like sour milk. They were not to go to the pond because "the young crown princess might fall in and drown, with her face bloated and purple like a sauced plum, would you like that?"

Despite her aunt's cautions, Ani was certain if she explained to the nurse-mary that she just wanted to speak with the swans, then it would be all right. When the woman's eyes widened, Ani mistook it for eagerness.

"I can understand what they say," Ani said. "I'll teach you how, too, if you like."

The nurse-mary rose from the garden bench, gasping, and tossed bits of grass in the air before her to shake loose the evil.

"You'll curse yourself. People don't speak to animals, and it's not such a clever game to say you do."

Ani overheard the nurse-mary report to the queen in hushed, hurried tones that made Ani feel she had done something unspeakably bad. Thereafter, outings were limited to the gardens and the nursery porch. Her mother looked at her now with a distant, disapproving frown, and Ani resolved to keep to herself until her aunt would return and carry her off into the freedom of the mountains. Long hours she spent watching the purple horizon, willing her aunt to walk back out of it with welcoming arms.

She missed the sound of bird words, and the feeling that came, like a cricket leaping inside her chest, when she heard and understood. In her world of cold marble floors and aged tutors and whispering children, only the animal speaking felt like her own thing and the pond her own place. Once or twice when the nurse-mary was bedded with a head cold, Ani escaped the nursery porch and ran to practice with the swans. As she approached, two gardeners stepped between her and the pond.

"Can't come around here, Crown Princess," said the hard-skinned man. "Dangerous."

When she tried to slip into the mews to converse with the hawks, the hunt-master carefully escorted her out with a firm grip on her collar.

"Sorry, Crown Princess," he said. "The queen was clear that you were not to play near my birds."

She tried many times in the two years she waited for her aunt's return, and each time someone stopped her. It felt like dreams when she ran but could not move. Sometimes in secret, Ani lay on her belly and tried to mimic her puppy Lindy's whines and growls.

"Listen to me," she said. "Can you understand me, Lindy?"

The nurse-mary must have overheard, for when Ani returned from her tutor's apartment one afternoon, the puppy was gone and her mother stood in the center of the nursery, waiting.

"He is in the kennels, now," said the queen. "I think it best that you no longer keep pets."

"I want Lindy back." Ani was hurt and angry, and she spoke louder than she ever had before. "You give him back."

The queen slapped Ani's mouth.

"That tone is unacceptable. This fantasy has gone unchecked for too long. If I had known that woman was teaching you those mad ideas she had when we were children, I would have sent her running from this city without her pack. It is time you learn your place, Crown Princess. You will be the next queen, and your people will not trust a queen who makes up stories and seems to talk to wild beasts."

Ani did not answer. She was holding her stinging mouth and staring at the purple horizon.

The queen turned to go, then paused before the door. "I came to tell you. We received word today that your aunt passed away this winter. I am sorry if this hurts you."

Ani watched her mother's back walk away and felt her seven-year-old world tumble like a hatchling from a tree.

That evening her parents held a ball. The nurse-marys stood in the nursery doorway and smiled toward the music that came down the corridor like a sigh. The wet nurse held the new princess, Susena-Ofelienna, to her breast and spoke of skirts and slippers. A young, pretty nurse-mary held Napralina-Victery to her shoulder and whispered about men and secret things.

Every word they spoke seemed to empty Ani more, like buckets dipped into a shallow well. She pretended great interest in building a city of many towers with her pale wood bricks, and when the nurse-marys wandered into the corridor for a closer look, Ani slipped out the nursery porch to run away.

The light that came from behind pushed her shadow forward, a very thin giantess stretching across the lawn, her head pointing to the pond. She ran barefoot on the damp night grass and felt the breeze go right through her nightgown. It was early spring and still cold at night.

She reached the pond and looked back to where the pink marble ballroom gazed brilliantly out at the night, the glass and walls trapping the music in. The people inside looked beautiful, graceful, and completely at ease in their place. It helped her resolve to realize that she was nothing like them. But when she turned her back to the lights, she saw that the night was so dark, the stables did not exist. She could not see the stars. The world felt as high as the depthless night sky and deeper than she could know. She understood, suddenly and keenly, that she was too small to run away, and she sat on the damp ground and cried.

The water lipped the pond's sandy side. The swans slept, blue and silver in the night. One swan roused at Ani's sob and greeted her, then nested in the sand near her feet. I am tired, Ani told her, and lost from my herd. The swan words she spoke sounded to her human ears like the mournful wail of a child. Sleep here, was the bird's simple reply. Ani lay down and, putting one arm over her face as though it were a wing, tried to shut out the world where she did not belong.

She awoke to the angry sqwaking of the swans as two strong hands lifted her.

"Crown Princess, are you all right?"

She wondered why the world was so black, then realized her eyes were still closed. Her lids seemed too thick to open. She let her head fall against the man's shoulder and smelled the strong goat milk soap of his clothing. He was carrying her away.

"Who are you?"

"Talone, Watcher of the East Gate. You were asleep with the swans and would not rouse."

Ani creaked open one eyelid and saw that the sky above the mountains was eggshell pale. She looked at the man and was about to ask a question when she shuddered again, from her bones to her skin.

"Are you hurt, Crown Princess?"

"I'm cold."

He pulled his cloak off his shoulders and wrapped it around her, and the warmth lured her back into a fevered sleep.

It was three weeks before she was well enough that the lines on the physicians' faces relaxed into wrinkles and the youngest nurse-mary did not exclaim whenever Ani opened her eyes. Long after the fever, her name was often replaced with "that delicate child." She was kept indoors. She was never alone. She breakfasted in bed and supped on a couch and never laced her own boot. The incident with the swans was mentioned only in secret tones.

"We almost lost a future queen."

"And not just to death, but to wildness."

"What shall we do with her?" said the nursery-mistress.

The queen looked down at Ani, who lay sleepily awake, her eyes half-open, her ears pricked for the judgment that would fall from her mother's powerful mouth onto her head. Somehow by getting sick, Ani felt she had badly betrayed this woman, and remorse pricked at her with the fever chills. The queen was like some terribly beautiful bird whose language she did not yet understand, and she felt her thin body fill with the desire to understand, and to please.

The queen squinted, briefly creating spider leg-thin lines around her eyes. She lay a cool hand on Ani's forehead. The gesture was almost motherly.

"Keep her resting," said the queen, "and away from birds."

The Goose Girl
by by Shannon Hale