NYC Midnight Short Story Contest, 2023 — Round 1 Entry
Synopsis: A kindly, but unseamly maiden catches the eye of the Prince — if she can prove her worth.
Genre: Fairy Tale
Character: A Cabinet Maker
Word Count: 2500
The Maiden and Her Golden Voice
Long ago, there was a kingdom of everlasting winter. Spring had long since abandoned the realm, and the kingdom had become a barren region of ice where little grew and even less survived. Pale and bleak, the land held no color, save for the orange of the foxes that roamed feral through the land and the black of the ravens that haunted the white birch of the forest. Even the mightiest of princes could not return Spring to the land. And so the people became cruel, forlorn, and desolate in their a wasteland of white and gray.
In this kingdom, there lived a kindly Maiden. Though blessed with golden hair and a golden voice, the Maiden had suffered as a child, and bore scars across her face and burns upon her hands. Such were the markings that marred her skin that no man nor woman would choose to love her. Shunned from the kingdom, with only the memory of warmth, the Maiden lived a lonely life at the edge of the darkest forest.
Her only solace came in her garden.
Each day, the Maiden would toil over the barren earth, planting lilacs and roses, lavender and sage, honeysuckle and violets. Even as the winter wind bit at her skin, the Maiden nurtured her garden, singing songs of Spring to the tender shoots. As she sang, the forest around her came to life. Foxes and ravens, wolves and owls, bears and sparrows came to her garden, entranced by the beauty of her golden voice. Soon, the garden grew into a beautiful glade with a thousand vibrant colors, for the Maiden had brought Spring to the land with her song.
One day, a Carpenter was traveling through the forest in search of birch for his work when he became lost. Exhausted and afraid, the Carpenter fell asleep upon the frozen earth until he was awoken by a song drifting through the trees, the voice calling to his soul.
Fear not the winter,
Come and you’ll see,
Here with my violets,
Safe you will be.
Fear not the forest,
Come and behold,
Her with my roses,
Safe from the cold.
Enchanted, the Carpenter followed the sound until he stumbled upon a magnificent garden where a golden-haired Maiden tended violets and roses. Creatures of the forest lounged lazily as they listened to her sing and the air was warm with the scent of Spring. When he beheld the colors of the garden, the Carpenter fell to his knees, utterly mesmerized by the beauty before him.
When the Maiden saw the Carpenter upon the ground, she rushed forward, offering her arm to the man. Though the burns on her hands glowed in the sun, the Carpenter touched her without fear. As he rose to his feet, the Carpenter looked upon the disfigured face of the Maiden and though she turned away in shame, the man looked upon her with nothing but kindness.
“Do not be afraid,” said the Carpenter. “For if you have created something this beautiful and rare, your heart must be as golden as your voice.”
Honored by his words, the Maiden offered the Carpenter food and respite in her garden. Under the watchful eye of the foxes and owls, deer and ravens, the Carpenter slept warm and safe among the lilacs and sage. When he arose the next morning, the Maiden presented him with enchanted birch from the edge of her forest and a single red rose from her garden. The Carpenter stared in awe at the rose, for it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. When he tried to pay the Maiden for her gifts, she refused.
“Kindness for kindness,” she said and pinned the rose to the Carpenter’s cloak. “So long as my garden thrives, so too shall this rose.”
When he returned home, the Carpenter worked the enchanted birch that the Maiden had given him, determined to celebrate her kindness. From the wood, he carved an exquisite cabinet for which to house the rose. When he placed the rose within the cabinet, the birch began to vibrate and glow, shielding the rose against time, and the Carpenter knew that the rose’s color would remain vibrant and everlasting as the Maiden’s garden.
As it happened, not long after, the prince of the kingdom traveled to the Carpenter’s village in search of a wife. When he entered the Carpenter’s shop and beheld the rose within the cabinet, the prince was overcome with wonder, for he had never seen such color in his barren lands. The Carpenter told him of the Maiden who grew the rose in her garden, and the prince fell in love.
“Let it be known,” said the prince, “that should this Maiden present herself to me, with a rose as red as this, I shall marry her and she shall be my queen.”
And so the proclamation went out over all the kingdom.
When the Maiden heard this, she was overwhelmed with joy. She began to imagine what it would be like to live in the warm Palace and be loved by a prince. How wonderful to never be cold and alone again! So the Maiden picked her most beautiful red rose and, leaving her precious garden, journeyed to the palace to find the prince. When she arrived, the Maiden found many ladies presenting themselves to the prince. Each was far more beautiful than she, but none carried a rose.
When the Maiden knelt before the prince, and presented him with her true red rose, the prince leapt from his throne and ran to meet his beloved. But when he reached her, and beheld the face beneath her golden hair, he was repulsed by the scars across her visage and the burns upon her hands.
He threw her backwards onto the ground, and spat at her feet.
“Thief!” said the prince. “You have stolen this rose. For no one who looks as ugly as you could grow something as beautiful as this!”
And he crushed the rose beneath his boot.
“Please,” wept the Maiden, her tears streaming onto the palace floor, “I promise, I grew that rose in my garden. If you will come with me, I will show you.”
But the prince was disgusted by her appearance and did not believe her.
“I will not go with you,” said the prince, “but I will allow you to prove your worth.”
Throwing the doors to his courtyard open, the prince gestured to his lifeless garden.
“If, by dawn, you can grow me a tree with leaves as orange as the sunset, I will marry you.”
Then the prince threw the Maiden into the garden and watched as she looked across the landscape. Long neglected, the garden was frozen beneath winter’s touch and the Maiden saw little hope in growing the rose. Above her, the prince and his court laughed and jeered, then they slammed the door to the garden as the Maiden collapsed against the barren ground, once again alone and cold.
That night, as her despair deepened, an orange fox found his way into the prince’s garden. As he looked upon the Maiden, and saw her sorrow, the fox trotted up beside her.
“Sweet Maiden,” said the fox, “why do you despair?”
“I must grow a tree with leaves as orange as the sunset by the morning, or else my love will be forfeit!”
“Then, Sweet Maiden, you may have the orange of my fur for your tree. But all magic comes with a cost. If you wish the orange of my fur, you must give me your golden hair, so that I may always have a warm bed upon which to sleep.”
The Maiden thought deeply over the fox’s offer. Though her hair was her one true beauty, the maiden knew what it was to shiver while she slept. If with her golden hair, the fox would always have a warm bed — and she could live in the palace the prince — neither would be cold again.
So she accepted the fox’s bargain, and from her head, she cut her hair, and presented it to the fox, who tucked the hair away in his fur. Then he climbed up a decrepit oak with white and colorless leaves and lowered his tail upon the trunk. The Maiden watched in amazement as the orange of the fox bled into the leaves, like paint upon the edge of water, until the fox was as pale as a birch. The Maiden then set to work singing to and caring for the tree until the orange leaves glimmered and the tree shone with love.
At dawn, when the prince returned to the garden, he beheld a stunning tree with leaves as vibrant as the sunset. Beneath it, the Maiden knelt as she awaited her prince.
“My love!” he said, “You have proven your worth!”
But when he reached her and found her golden hair hanging in jagged ends, he jumped up in disgust.
“Demon!” shouted the prince, and trod upon the Maiden’s hand, breaking the bones within. “This is some sort of trick! For no one with looks as repulsive as yours could create something as wondrous as this!”
As the Maiden cradled her broken hand, she begged the prince to honor their bargain, for she wished never to be alone again.
“Very well,” said the prince, “but a tree is an easy task. If you want my love, you shall grow me a violet as dark as the night sky. Do this by midnight tonight, and we shall be wed in the morning.”
So the Maiden was left alone one more in the desolate garden, but her hands were too painful to work. As she began to cry, a black raven flew over the garden and he landed atop a barren birch.
“Sweet Maiden,” called down the raven, “why do you weep?”
“I must grow a violet as dark as the night sky by midnight, or else I will forever be alone!”
“Then, Sweet Maiden, you may have the black of my feathers for your violet. But all magic comes with a cost. If you wish the black of my feathers, you must give me your golden voice, so I may call for a mate.”
At this the Maiden felt great anguish, for her voice was her one true gift. But the Maiden knew what it was to be alone, and felt deeply for the raven. If with her voice the raven could find a mate — and she could wed the prince — neither would be alone in this world again.
And so she accepted the raven’s offer, and from her throat the raven drew the Maiden’s final song. Then the raven hopped down from the birch and touched his beak to the ground. The Maiden watched as the color drained from the raven, siphoned into the ground like ink upon parchment, leaving the raven white as the snow. From the soil, a single violet began to grow, black as the night sky. Without her voice to sing the violet to life, the flower took a long while to grow, but by midnight, the violet had bloomed. The Maiden plucked the flower from the ground and knelt before the throne, presenting the flower to the prince in her ruined hand.
So astonished was the prince by the rarity of the violet that he declared immediately that he and the Maiden would be wed. The prince knelt before her and asked for her hand, but when she went to speak, nothing but a croak left her lips. Instead of honoring his promise, the prince laughed grotesquely and seized the violet from the Maiden’s hand.
“What a pathetic and ugly creature!” cried the prince, tearing the violet to shreds, “even with the most beautiful of violets, such a hideous woman is not worthy to be queen”.
And without so much as another word, the prince threw the Maiden from the palace and slammed the door behind him.
With no hope left to earn the love of the prince, the Maiden journeyed back home to her garden. But without her hands to tend to the garden, nor her golden voice to sing, Spring soon left her glade and the roses and lavender, honeysuckle and lilacs decayed around her until she was left with nothing but grief and despair.
Even the red rose that gleamed everlasting in the enchanted cabinet of the Carpenter began to lose its luster until it became as pale as the waning moon. Shocked and afraid, the Carpenter rushed to the Maiden’s garden. When he arrived, he found the land sterile and frozen, the Maiden huddled against the ground, weeping at all she had lost.
“Sweet Maiden,” the Carpenter said, covering the Maiden with his cloak. “Why do you weep?”
Unable to speak, the Maiden cowered within his cloak, ashamed of her foolishness and the ugliness that cursed her skin.
“Oh Sweet Maiden, do not be afraid,” said the Carpenter, “for I see the beauty beyond your scars. I see the kindness you gave me when I was lost, and the care you gave the land. I see the hope you gave the raven and the warmth you gave the fox. Love need not be proved, but if you feel you must, your kindness of spirit and generosity of heart were long since proved with a night of rest for a weary traveler.”
Then the Carpenter pulled from his pocket the rose she had given him long ago, and rested its pale form upon the Maiden’s lap.
“Kindness for kindness,” said the Carpenter, and he kissed the Maiden upon her cheeks.
The moment his lips touched her tears, the rose in the Maiden’s lap came alive, more red and vibrant than ever before. From the rose grew a great wave, magic spreading through the garden, bringing light and color to the glade, the lilacs and lilies, forests and trees once more thrumming with life.
When the Carpenter leaned back and beheld the Maiden, he saw to his great astonishment that the scars upon her face were gone, her hands unblemished and whole once more. Her hair grew in lustrous sheets, cascading over her shoulder, shining in the warm light of Spring. She became the most beautiful woman the Carpenter had ever seen and the Carpenter kissed the Maiden once more upon the lips, his love restoring her golden voice.
With great joy, the Maiden began to sing and Spring spread beyond the garden, traveling throughout the realm, banishing the everlasting winter. But when the wave of enchantment reached the palace, and the prince strode out to admire the beauty, a white raven swept from the sky, blinding him with its beak. Then, too, a pale fox leapt upon his face and ripped his handsome features to shreds.
For never shall cruelty be rewarded with beauty. It is kindness that begets love, and the beauty within that shines brighter than any beauty without.