Once upon a time, a miller lived with his wife and daughter at the edge of the forest on the outskirts of a beautiful kingdom, miles away from the village. Generations earlier, a special path had been cleared for the Queen’s horses through the wood, and for many years it was the exclusive mill of the entire kingdom. However, a new mill had been erected in the village with the latest technology, employing not one but several millers, and within only a few years, the new mill had grown so large it overshadowed the little mill by the forest. The miller even lost his account with the Queen.
Hard times fell upon the miller. He had once been prosperous, even wealthy, but now he was very poor. He had once pampered his wife and daughter, and they had an esteemed position in the village. He had hoped that his daughter would marry one of the king’s court by the time she was of marrying age. Now, even the lowliest villager would not take her. His wife and daughter foraged for food in the forest and picked apples from the trees behind the mill to sell at market. The miller’s wife begged him to take a position at the new mill and put his skills to use. But his pride was too great, and he refused.
When the miller’s wife grew hot and bright with fever, there was no money to bring her to the doctor. The sickness spread throughout her body and within a week, she was dead. The miller’s daughter had tried in vain to nurse her mother back to health. At her bedside, she had solemnly promised her mother that she would take care of her father. Through her grief, she took over all of her mother’s duties, and she still foraged, cleaned, bought and made household goods, and sold apples at the market. She cared for her father the best she could, but he was inconsolable.
The miller took to drinking sour mash, and spent his days in a drunken stupor. He cried and prayed for his fortune to change. One day when his daughter was at the market, a strange visitor knocked on the door.
“Whaddya want?” The miller slurred.
“I want to help you,” the stranger answered.
“You want to help me? You can’t help me. Can’ya bring my wife back? Can you bring my mill back? Can you restore what has been taken from me?”
The miller roared with bitter laughter. “How?”
“Give me what is behind the mill.”
“And then what?” The miller asked, thinking of the rows of apple trees behind the mill, their only source of income.
“Then you will have a new wife, a new life, and all the riches you desire.”
“Sounds like you want me to make a deal with the devil.”
“Only if that is what you want.”
The miller and the stranger looked each other in the eye for a good few minutes, as if trying to read the others thoughts.
“Give me what is behind the mill, and you will have your heart’s desire.”
The miller thought about his daughter, and the back-breaking work of picking and selling the apples. He imagined her good, sweet face, so much like her mother’s.
“Okay,” he said.
“It’s a deal,” the stranger said, extending his hand.
The miller took his hand, and for a second, he felt a hot jolt course through his arm. Their handshake was hard and firm, binding.
The stranger bowed, “thank you, Sir. I will go collect her now.”
“Her?” The miller asked quickly, but too late. The stranger turned on his heel and was already out the door.
The miller ran after him. His daughter was under one of the trees with the bushel next to her. His heart dropped. He watched as the devil approached her.
“No,” he shouted, running towards them.
The miller’s daughter turned around in alarm. She saw the stranger approaching her. She saw the pain and anguish on her father’s face as he rushed toward her.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“My dear, your father has just given you to me,” the stranger said, smiling.
“No I didn’t!” The miller shouted.
“We just sealed the deal with a handshake,” the stranger reminded him, and the miller’s hand flashed as if on fire.
“No …” the miller said weakly, clutching his burning hand to his chest.
The stranger reached for the miller’s daughter, but when he tried to take her hand, he realized that he could not touch her. She was too pure; she was protected. He growled with anger, then turned and walked away.
“Cut off her hands!” he instructed the miller as he rushed past him. “I will be back.”
The miller sunk to the ground.
“Father, what is going on?” his daughter asked him.
“He asked for what was behind the mill … the apple trees … in exchange for … in exchange for …” The miller couldn’t continue. He broke down crying.
“I won’t let him take you. I won’t.”
“Who is he, Father?”
The miller’s daughter shuddered. She knew that her father was in a bad sort these days, but now he thought he was making deals with the devil? She was very worried about him. She brought him into the house and made a pot of tea. She consoled him in the ways that she had watched her mother console him, with food and drink and nonsense words, then she put him to bed like a child. She found his stash of sour mash and threw it away. Her father’s drinking was out of control.
She replayed what had happened over and over again in her head. None of it made sense. She decided to stay home and watch over her father instead of going back to the market. She had returned early because she sold all of the apples she had brought and wanted to get more. There was much to do at home anyway, and she began her household chores. She checked on her father regularly; he was sleeping like a baby.
Hours later, another visitor knocked at the door. The miller’s daughter started, afraid that it was the same stranger from earlier that day, but it was not. It was a local man from the village, come to talk with her father about business. He explained that the mill in town had an overage and he wondered if her father would be interested in contracting some of the work.
“Yes,” the miller’s daughter answered for him. “He will be ready to begin tomorrow.”
The little mill on the edge of the forest prospered, and the miller and his daughter fell into a comfortable routine, the visit from the stranger long forgotten. The miller’s daughter had grown to enjoy selling apples at the market, so she continued, even though it was no longer necessary. Day after day, the miller’s daughter grew more beautiful, rosy and healthy. Sometimes the miller watched her and was reminded so strongly of his wife, he felt his heart swell. Sometimes, as he hugged her good-night, his body responded before his mind, and his erection was swift and hard, pressing.
Months passed, and the miller became obsessed with the idea that his daughter was his wife’s replacement in nearly every way, except one. She looked so much like her, she could have been her twin. She loved him, she cared for him, she cooked and cleaned for him. He loved his daughter, but he desired a wife.
The miller’s daughter began to feel a little uncomfortable under her father’s hungry gaze, though she did not know the reason behind it. She was a young woman, no longer a little girl, but she was still innocent. There was a man she had met at the market who said he loved her. Once, he kissed her on the mouth, and she felt her soul sing. He wanted to ask her father for her hand in marriage, but the miller’s daughter wanted to wait. She wanted to make sure her father would be okay without her.
“Father, when do you think I should get married?” she asked one sunny morning after her father had awoken in a particularly good mood.
“Do you think you are ready?” the miller asked, his brow starting to furrow.
“Yes,” his daughter answered.
“Are you telling me that you met someone?”
The miller’s daughter’s face flushed.
“Where?” he asked sharply, his mood quickly turning.
“At the market, father.”
The miller’s face grew dark. He left, returning to his bedroom. After a few moments, his daughter knocked softly on the door. He opened the door angrily, his face contorted with rage. He grabbed his daughter by the arm roughly and pulled her into the room. She stood, shaking with confusion, as he held her by the shoulders and kissed her hard on the lips. The miller’s daughter shook her head, trying to get away from the terrible kiss.
“Did he kiss you like that?” the miller said angrily.
“Stop, father. Please …” she said, caught in his tight embrace.
He pushed her onto the bed and his full weight fell on top of her. He removed his belt with one hand while holding her down with the other, then he used the belt to bind her hands above her head. She rolled from side to side, trying to get away, but he was too strong, he overpowered her. He pushed her skirt up with one hand while unbuttoning his pants with the other.
“No …” she cried, moving her body violently, bringing up her knees to kick him. He staggered from the blow, and she rolled off the bed, hitting the floor with a thud. With her hands still bound, she used them as leverage to stand, and then she ran, out of the room, out of the house, and into the woods, as far and as fast as her feet would carry her.
But she was off balance, and she tripped and fell on the path. Her father caught up with her, and found her lying helpless on the forest floor. He bent over her, and grabbed her arm. He held her steady, her hands still bound. With his other hand, he pulled the belt around her wrists higher, immobilizing her outstretched arms. In one swift motion, he drew a long sword from the sheath on his back, the sharp edge glittering briefly in the light before it fell upon her wrists, slicing through skin, blood, bone.
“Let the devil take you,” he said.
She was stunned by the blow, in shock from the loss of blood. She did not scream. She did not make a sound. A murder of birds in the surrounding trees flew up suddenly, releasing a cacophony of shrieks and caws, leaving a throbbing silence in their wake. Her hands gone, the belt loosened and fell to the ground with a dull thud. Her father released his grip on her arm, letting her fall among the dirt and dried leaves.
She cried and cried, her tears cleansing the wound. And when there were no tears left, she cried more; she was wounded, her soul blindsided, her heart broken. The devil hovered around her, but still he could not touch her; her tears had washed away even the sin inflicted upon her, and she was still pure. At one point she gathered enough strength to stand, but she could barely walk; she staggered piteously until she got caught in the thorny bramble that had overrun the path, and she tripped again, and fell unconscious.
Perhaps it was the scent of the blood, or the hand of fate interceding, but the prince’s dogs led the hunting party astray. They had been down the ragged, unused path for over an hour, and it seemed that the dogs had taken over the expedition. A sense of urgency had replaced the hunting party’s earlier joviality, and one of them wondered aloud if they should turn back.
“No,” the prince said.
“But, there’s no game in this part of the woods. We’ve been out here for hours … soon the light will be gone …”
“Keep going,” the prince said, his sense of desperation growing. His dogs had never acted like that before, and it was making him anxious.
Far ahead on the path, the dogs started barking.
“Finally!” someone shouted, and the hunting party ran to see what the dogs had found.
None of them were prepared to find a human body among the tangled bush. None of them were prepared for all the blood.
“Is she dead?”
The prince stepped forward, carefully clearing a path through the thorns and bramble as he advanced. He knelt next to her, trying to find a pulse before realizing that the young woman’s hands had been brutally chopped off. Blood had soaked through the front of her dress, but there seemed to be no other wounds. Her heartbeat was weak, but she was still alive.
“We need to go back. We need to get help,” someone said.
“I won’t leave her …” the prince said, tearing off pieces of his shirt to make a tourniquet for her wounds.
Another member of the party came up with a quick plan, and they dispersed. Two would search for the village doctor, another would alert the Queen to prepare for their return, and the last would herd the dogs while the prince carried the young woman back to the castle.
Each day, the young woman grew stronger. Each day, the prince loved her more. She was so sweet and beautiful; she was a child sent to him downriver in a bulrush basket, and he promised heaven and earth that he would love and care for her for the rest of his life, if only she would love him in return. He needn’t have worried; she had been cast from her home and into the dark forest, left for dead, then rescued by a prince. She loved him so much she thought her heart might burst.
Within a few months, the prince and the handless maiden were married. As a wedding gift, the prince commissioned a pair of silver hands to be created for her. Though her silver hands were not functional, they were amazingly beautiful, as delicate and light as a piece of lace. She imagined that they were like a piece of jewelry, an adornment, and she loved her husband’s heart for thinking of the gift. With time, she was able to manipulate the appendages like a simple machine, and she could pick up and move some items using her silver hands, albeit clumsily.
In marriage, the handless maiden and the prince loved each other fiercely. Each night, she fell asleep in his loving arms, safe and protected, thinking this must be what happily ever after feels like.
The Queen was overjoyed with the union, and the entire kingdom rejoiced when only a couple of months after the wedding, they announced a pregnancy. In the far away, fairy tale kingdom, true love ruled the minds and the hearts of the people. Outside the kingdom, however, war loomed. Though the prince wanted to stay for the baby’s birth, it soon became a necessity for the prince to oversee negotiations with a hostile neighboring kingdom. The Queen promised that she would care for the handless maiden, and write him immediately after the baby’s birth. The prince left, promising the entire kingdom that he would stay until a peaceful resolution had been reached, no matter how long it took.
After the baby’s birth, the Queen did as promised, and sent a message to her son, telling him that the baby was a beautiful girl, and that both mother and child were fine. A messenger was sent directly, but it was a long trip to the neighboring kingdom, and the messenger stopped mid-way at the crossroads, seeing a shady tree that would be perfect for a short rest. Unbeknownst to the messenger, the devil was waiting there, and while he slept, the devil changed the message to say that the baby was hideously deformed.
Upon receiving the message, the prince was surprised; however, he sent another message back immediately, saying that he loved his wife and child, no matter what. Again, the messenger took a brief respite under that same shady tree, and again, the devil was waiting to switch the message. After the note had been delivered to the Queen, she sent for her most trusted advisor. When he entered her rooms, he found the Queen in a debilitated state. She shakily handed the note to him. He read it quickly.
“This is not from the prince,” he said.
“It has his seal.”
“He never would have written those words.”
“It is his hand.”
“Something is very wrong.”
“I know,” the Queen sobbed.
Early the next morning, the Queen told the handless maiden that it would be best for her to leave the castle until she figured out what was going on. Right now, both her and the baby’s life were in danger. The Queen packed a bag of provisions, and placed it carefully on the handless maiden’s back. Then, she swaddled the baby and strapped her to young woman’s chest. They would be safer in the woods.
“A week, my sweet child,” the Queen said with tears in her eyes. “Hide well.”
“What if he can’t find me?”
“He will find you. His love for you is true. I would swear my life on it.”
“I’m afraid,” the handless maiden said.
“You are stronger than you know,” the Queen said. “I would swear my life on that, too.”
And with that, the handless maiden was cast into the woods once more. The baby was breast feeding, so she did not have to worry about her nourishment, but the handless maiden grew weaker as the days passed, and she began to run out of provisions. After two weeks, she stopped counting the days. She walked and walked, stopping only to find shelter for the night. She rarely stayed in the same place for more than one night. She was lost in the dark forest with a baby strapped to her, not knowing where she was going or what she would find when she got there.
Days, she felt brave and free, and she sang with a chorus of birds to the baby, enjoying simple, quiet moments with her child under the sun dappled canopy. Nights, she burrowed with her child close to the ground, their shelter camouflaged under bushes. Though it offered no real protection, she tried to feel safe, and she pressed her baby to her breast, her heartbeat strong and loud. Never had she seen such a quiet, happy baby; it was as if she understood that it was best to be quiet in the dark forest, to hide until it was light again.
One day, the handless maiden was feeling especially weary. She had been moving through a dry area of the woods, and had not had anything to eat or drink for days. She did not know that the devil was watching her relentlessly. He had only three chances to take her, after the deal he had made with her father, but he could not take someone so pure. Because of that, he had already lost two chances; he was biding his time, waiting for the final opportunity to present itself.
When the handless maiden came across a small pond, she nearly cried, she was so thirsty, and she bent over the fluid surface to drink. The baby, swaddled and attached to her chest, saw something shiny in the water, and lunged forward to reach it, falling head-first into the pond. A pain she had never known seized the handless maiden as she plunged her useless silver hands into the water, to save her child. When she pulled the baby out from the depths, the handless maiden nearly fainted from shock; her hands were no longer silver, but flesh and bone.
She knew that no matter what happened next, she would survive.
When peace had been restored between the kingdoms, the prince returned home to find his wife and child missing. He searched the woods day and night, but he could not find them. The weather began to turn, and dry leaves fell from the trees. He found one of his wife’s silver hands washed up by the edge of a pond, and he began to fear the worst, but he would not leave the dark forest without them.
He had found her once before, unconscious, wounded and broken. He would find her again. But when he saw the apparition before him on the path, a beautiful young woman singing to a baby, alive and whole and happy, he thought he must be dreaming. He approached cautiously, but the woman sensed his presence and looked directly at him. She was no longer the handless maiden, or the miller’s daughter, or even the prince’s wife. She did not need to be saved. Everything had changed. Still, he reached for her hands, and brought them to his lips, kissing her palms and the tips of her fingers. Nothing had changed; her heart was the same heart, and he loved her.
He picked up the baby, took his love by the hand, and together, they left the dark forest and returned to the castle, where they all lived happily ever after.
The Handless Maiden, Retold © Michelle Augello-Page, 2015