Note: This short story is actually the original storyline I was going to use for a novel about Gothel. After reading it and realizing that the original story is deeply problematic, I discarded it. So, here you go.
“Helena! Come inside, dear!” Mother is calling you, and judging from the heavenly scent wafting on the breeze, supper must be ready It’s been a year since Father died, but she always manages to have supper for the both of you, somehow.
“Coming, Mother!” you reply, brushing the grass off your skirt and running inside. Mother is standing by the fire, stirring the pot– rabbit stew, you’re certain of it. Hearing your footsteps, she turns around. Seized by that particular childhood joy at simply seeing her, you run into her arms and she holds you tight.
“You are the best Mother ever,” you tell her.
You sit by the bed, reading aloud from the Bible. Mother has been growing weaker by the day, and it gives you both a measure of comfort. You don’t really know how to read, of course, but you know all the stories, and holding that holy book makes you feel a little less as though your world isn’t crumbling faster than tinder on the evening fire.
“Daughter, you may stop now.” Mother’s voice is faint, and it frightens you. “I must tell you something. Soon, quite soon, I will be gone. You must find a new life. Find a good man to support you.”
You protest at once. “Mother, I am not giving up on you, and I am not yet sixteen–”
“Helena.” Mother’s voice is soft but firm, and you know you had best listen. “That fellow you have had your eye on… Archer, isn’t it? You think I don’t see. He will come to comfort you, and you must not be shy. Tell him you have no one, and you cannot go on. He will propose.” No sooner have you opened your mouth to argue than she hushes you again. “Do not complain for humility’s sake. It is the way things go. He is a good man, and you could do worse than settling down a bit early. Now, read me a story about the angels.”
Tears fill your eyes, and you cannot help but think that if you were truly reading, you would have to stop. As it is, Mother’s eyes are closed, you don’t need to see the book, and you can tell your story without worrying her. Her breathing is shallow and you know that sooner than you can bear to acknowledge, your entire world will shatter.
You wipe away the tears– they won’t do you any good, and you’ll only muss the front of your best dress. Archer is waiting in the next room. It is time for the procession to the church, but you can’t bring yourself to go.
“Helena dear, smile. It’s your wedding day. Turn around, now.” Your best fried ties the blue ribbon around your waist and slips the veil over your face. ‘Thank the Lord for that,’ you think. Archer would be upset if he saw your face so stricken.
“Thank you, Alys,” you whisper, and you allow her to take hold of your arm and guide you through the door.
Archer is standing right there, and he takes your arm from Alys, leading you down the road to town. His steps are firm, his expression set somewhere between nervous and excited, but muted so as to display an air of surety. You know him well enough to realize that, and it gives you a measure of comfort to know him so well– it bodes well for your future together, you think, and you relax a bit.
The church comes into view all too soon, and you fear you’ll black out. You cling to Archer’s arm a little tighter, and he intuitively gives your hand a little squeeze. You look at him, and his eyes, while betraying nothing to the casual observer, are definitely a little apprehensive. Then he turns to you, and he definitely looks nervous now, but his eyes are shining with love, and you suddenly feel sure that it’ll all be okay.
You pace the floor, unsure of how to tell him. Your hands keep going back to your stomach, though you know nothing is there. Archer has been away for two months now, and you don’t know how he’ll take the news.
Before you can work yourself up to an even bigger fuss, the creaking of the door and the pounding of heavy boots across the floor announce your husband’s return. Unable to help yourself, you run into the front room and bury yourself in his broad chest. He holds you tight for a moment, but then takes your shoulders and moves you back a step.
“What’s wrong?” You feared this, but how could you have hoped he wouldn’t notice? When you’ve been married to someone for seven years, you know a bit about them. Hanging your head, you recite the words you’ve been practicing to yourself for days.
“It happened again, Archer. One month ago. I don’t know why– I stayed in my bed, and I ate and drank just like we discussed, but it just didn’t work.”
A low growl starts in his throat, and when he turns his eyes to you, they shine with a wildness you haven’t seen there before. He raises his hand, seems to contemplate it for a moment, and brings it crashing down across your face.
It comes as such a surprise, you go with your first instinct, which is to slide a few feet across the room. You look up to see him advancing toward you, and this time you curl into a ball in preparation for what you know will come. You may be the one who has lost something, but he always treats you like you’ve insulted him somehow. His fury rains down on you in blow after blow, and you hear something crack. Your vision slowly goes dark, and you wonder if this is dying.
You pace the floors of the little house, berating yourself for your cowardice. You should have stayed. What sort of woman leaves her husband? Who will clean the house? Who will cook his meals?
You give a bitter laugh. Archer will be just fine. He’ll probably tell people you’ve died. After such a number of losses, nobody would be surprised. He’ll tell them that you were sick, and then any stain will be cleared from his reputation. He will find some other young girl to take as a wife, have lots of children. You don’t cry– you have used up all your tears. You cried the entire way here from your old village, and it was worth it to be somewhere you are completely unknown.
The children are outside, and you know you have to tend them, so you calm yourself and go back out. Little Thatcher and Cromley are exclaiming over bugs in the garden, right where you left them. It’s a good thing you come out when you do, because it’s just that moment that Mary chooses to come up the road.
“Mama!” Thatcher runs up to her, and Mary picks him up, swinging the child in the circle.
“Thank you so much, Gothel,” Mary says happily. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with them. It’s so hard with my mother ill, you know.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all,” you reply wholeheartedly, and Mary waves over her shoulder as she leaves with the children.
“I can’t stay, but goodbye, Gothel!” You flinch a little at the unfamiliar name. Archer is a violent man, but charming, and if he asks someone about Helena, you aren’t comfortable enough here to think they won’t answer.
You rub your eyes, unsure whether you are dreaming or awake, but the figure at the ed of the bed does not move, and you are forced to accept that someone is in your house.
“Ah, Helena, my dear. Or do you prefer Gothel now?” The figure moves toward you, and you realize that it is a man in a cloak. He removes his hood and reveals his face. It is astonishingly handsome, and you worry suddenly that Archer has sent him to kill you, but the figure stops and gives you a genuine smile.
“What do you want? Why are you in my house?” You keep a calm tone in your voice, and you are proud of yourself for that, but you are shaking a little.
“I have come to make you an offer. I have noticed that you cannot have children. That is terribly sad, but you are letting it make your life empty, and that is even worse. I can offer you something… meaningful.” You hold your breath, unable to imagine anything at this point that could make your life worth living. “I can offer you power. Dominion over all growing things. You’ve always been fond of your gardens. Consider what this means: you would be able to make anything grow or die. Anything, in any weather.”
You blink heavily, confused. Why would this strange man offer you such a power, and how could he possibly bestow it? As though he can hear your thoughts, he continues.
“You do not need to know who I am. All you need to know is the cost. You give me a tiny little thing you won’t even miss, and I give you your power. All I want is your soul. Now, don’t fly into a tizzy. Think about it. When is the last time you even used it? Such a trivial thing for such an enormous gift.”
You find yourself nodding before you really think things through, and without allowing you time to consider the repercussions, the man touches you on the head and disappears. You lie back down in bed and fall asleep, content to believe that this has just been an elaborate dream.
You tend the garden, as you do every day. It is late, but some of the plants bloom only at night, so you are out here, caring for them as though they were your own limbs. You are clipping the leaves on one of the trees when you spot him.
Your neighbor is sneaking through your garden with arms full of your vegetables! Your precious vegetables that you nurtured from tiny seeds. They belong to you, and there is no way you are allowing this man to get away with his thieving. You will the pumpkin vines to trip him, and while he is lying on the ground, you walk up beside him.
“Why, I’m surprised at you. Thieving from my garden? I thought you were an honest and upright man.”
You look down at him in dismay, and he shivers.
“I’m sorry… It’s just… my wife is with child, and it is her dearest with to have some of your vegetables… I couldn’t deny her.” The man stammers on, and the perfect punishment dawns on you. You kick him a little and look off into the distance to where his cottage is. You cannot see it in the dark, but you know it well enough.
“I see,” you say carefully, savoring the moment. “You may have my vegetables, but at a price.” The man nods vigorously, and you smile. “The child. I want the child in exchange, and for that I will not kill you right here and now for stealing from me.”
The man is shocked, but you give him a fierce look, and he runs away with his ill-gotten gains. You walk back into the house and throw yourself down on the bed.
A child! A child, in this house. You, who thought you were cursed when the dream turned out to be a reality. The curse was a blessing. You see it now. You sit up suddenly. The neighbor’s wife will give birth soon, you know. Your house is not at all ready for a child.
This child will have everything it wishes for. You are going to be the perfect mother.