In a red brick farmhouse in a yellow field quite a ways from the road, there lived two girls who had no names other than what they were to each other. Eldest One's long hair gleamed gold, while Little Sister had dark locks, bluntly chopped short. But each had brown eyes, round and sad like those of a beaten dog, and each were very pale and very thin. They had no food, and their father had died.
Every two months on the night that the full moon burnt in the sky like an impassive eye, Little Sister sat before the fire and took a sharpened paring-knife with a jewelled handle that had once belonged to her father. She would hold her hair out before her—whatever had managed to grow in the last two moons—and she would chop it away, while Eldest One watched the monthly ritual sidelong with suspicious and untrusting eyes.
"Your beautiful hair," Eldest One would say as Little Sister tossed the locks into the fire, one by one, leaving her sheared like a boy.
"More beautiful to eat," replied Little Sister, who was harsh-tongued and guttural of speech.
There were some times, rare times, where Eldest One would bother to argue. "Cutting away all your hair will not bring us food," she would say. "Better to let it grow—some boy will think you beautiful and snatch you away to his farm, where you'll grow fat and have dozens of screaming babies. Don't you want to get fat, little one?"
Little Sister was not argumentative—she was right, and people who truly think themselves right rarely find a reason to argue back. But when she did respond to her sister's pleading, she would say one of three things:
"The gods will take my hair and see how pious I am, and then we will grow fat, doubtful sister."
"The boy I want will think me beautiful with or without hair."
Or, most often: "Shut up. I'll do what I want."
And Eldest One would not offer more arguments. She would sit back in her creaking wooden chair at their half-rotten dining table and look away, look out the window, on whose sill a candle flickered, casting them in a pathetic orange glow. She would listen to the sound of her sister chopping away at her hair and throwing the pieces into the flame, where they would burn up and be gone.
Little Sister did it every two months, and they did not grow any fatter.
Eldest One went into town. She would bring two large baskets on each arm, stuffed full with whatever wares they had to sell: cheeses and milk from their two thin, starving goats, whose offerings became less with every day; eggs from the four chickens still left alive; flowers and pea-pods and a sparse few potatoes picked from their field. There, she would meet boys in the streets, and giggle with them, and toss her beautiful hair, even though, if you removed her cloak and her skirt and shirt and pockets and underclothes, her ribs would jut awkwardly from under thin white flesh, and her cheekbones were sharper than the knife she failed to carry with her. Yes, she would giggle and flirt, and pray that a boy would take notice and spirit her away to a farm with more fertile earth to till, and that her flesh would cover her skeleton at last.
But Little Sister stayed home, and did things while Eldest One was gone that the older sister would never allow her to do: with arms curved stiff behind her back, she would carve harsh red runes and admonitions, tributes, into the tan skin below her shoulders, as best she could, where Eldest One would never see them; and she would creep into the woods with her jewelled knife tucked into her waistband, with hand on the knife to keep it in place, as her pants did not fit tightly and never would. She went naked from the waist upwards, so that the gods might see what she had done to her back. And there in the forest, she would shear even more hair—as much as she dared—from her head, and toss the severed strands among the ferns and foliage, a gift to all gods that desired it. Who knew what would happen to it? Perhaps the wind would blow it to places indiscriminate, or a bird would steal it for its nest, or an animal might happen to think it made a tasty meal. Little Sister would kneel in the dirt and clasp her hands tightly together, and pray for a few minutes, fervently and fiercely. Then, she would return home before Eldest One made her way back from the village and suspected she was gone.
Another full moon came, and Little Sister sat in front of the shimmering fire, dead-eyed. In went the hair. Eldest One sat in her place by the window and listened idly to the sshkknn, sshkknn of the knife going against the flat, limp hair. She said nothing.
Little Sister with teeth gritted awaited the words that came every moon: "Your beautiful hair." But no such praise came from Eldest One's lips.
Little Sister continued to stare into the blaze, allowing it to imprint her eyes with colorful flashes and images. "Sister, you're deadly quiet," she said.
It took a moment for Eldest One to hear and listen, truly—to hearken back to the world in which she was born. "I'm sorry," said the fair-haired girl.
"What's troubling you, dear one?" But there was venom and grit in the words; no one was dear to Little Sister.
"I met a boy," said Eldest One with caution.
"Oh! A boy. Tell me of him. Is he fat, like you desire? Does he make you ache with longing? Will he take you away to his lush homestead and give you a bounty of bouncing, pissing, wailing infants?"
"Perhaps he will," said Eldest One, shifting uncomfortably on her seat. "He is a good, kind man with lovely brown eyes. He has been nothing but good to me."
"And how did you attract such a man? Was your hair the honey? Or did he flock to your charms, your intelligence and wit? You know what he wants, don't you? Not your hand, not your pretty blue eyes, not your skill at conversation—not a desperate, cowering thing like you. He wants one thing, and it's between your legs. Perhaps he'll throw an apple at you after the fact."
"He does not!" cried Eldest One indignantly. "He's lovely and sweet! And who are you to speak so meanly of a man you've never laid eyes on?"
Still, Little Sister did not look at the other girl. "What you want, only the gods can give," she said dismissively. Off another lock went—sshkknn—into the fire to sizzle away.
Not quite another moon past, and it was a spring day. Eldest One went out with her beau, sweet Alfred, to pick flowers in a vast field that belonged to Jack Hightower, the wealthiest man in six miles. But Little Sister rejected an invitation to come along—to her sibling's vast relief—and remained at home, bowed piously before the roaring fire with back bared to the gods.
And in the rich meadow with flowers abounding, each as pretty and untouched as Eldest One was herself, the girl with her golden hair went about and picked every flower that pleased her eye, and held them in a growing bunch in her hand. But the boy, Alfred, picked no flower.
Finally, Eldest One went to him. With eyes cast downward—as she could not look him straight in the eye without turning red, lately—she said, "Why don't you pick the flowers, sweet boy? You can put them in a vase in your kitchen to brighten the room."
He shook his head and laughed. "Because I haven't yet seen a flower as pretty as you, pigeon."
Even as she turned red, he continued: "And what if I brought you home to brighten my kitchen?"
But after much blushing and cajoling, she convinced him to pick a single flower—the whitest of roses—and tuck it behind his ear. And then they drank deeply of each other, as lovers do, as a young person can find that a plump red mouth is sweeter than sugared wine.
But a man saw the two lovers in the field—a servant of Jack Hightower, who had many groundskeepers and lackeys, for he was a wealthy man—and went straightaway to his employer, and told him of the brown-haired boy and golden-haired girl in the field, who had not had permission to be there, and who had stolen flowers from the field.
But Jack Hightower was unconcerned with the flowers that Eldest One had picked. His servant told him: "Daisies and cowslips and poppies, cornflowers and coltsfoots, violets and foxgloves, all colors of the rainbow—" And Jack Hightower, sitting on his grand engraved seat of gold with its red cushions in the midst of his great hall all draped with fineries, interrupted. "I don't care about daisies and cowslips and poppies, cornflowers and coltsfoots, violets and foxgloves. Let the children pick them. They grow wild in the fields. They are nothing."
But, wringing his linen cap between his hands, the servant told Jack Hightower, "The boy picked a white rose from your rosebush."
And here, Jack Hightower paid close attention.
Not a day later, after Jack Hightower had sent his servants into the village to wring the truth from every man's neck about a girl with golden hair and a boy who followed her like a dog, men in armored suits and carrying spears in their hands burst into the home of Eldest One and Little Sister. And they found only one girl there, a golden-haired one sitting alone, and dragged her screaming from the safety of her home, down to the main road, where she was met with identical soldiers who dragged Alfred along with them. For Little Sister had gone into the woods to pray alone.
"Do not!" Eldest One had cried when Little Sister told her of her intentions. "Into the forest, among the gnarled trees and their hideous branches, with wolves and bears and cougars who could eat you alive? No! Stay here, where it's safe."
But Little Sister could not be moved. "There's a bad wind today, old one," she said in her growl of a tongue. "I'll go into the woods and pray for protection. It will only take a few minutes. Come with me, and we can both lend our voices to the gods."
But Eldest One was waiting for Alfred to come to her house and knock sweetly on the door and escort her to the village, and so she declined, shivering and pulling her white shawl closer around her. "I won't come. I have better things to do than pray to your dead gods."
So Little Sister swept away with her shorn head in patches, and Eldest One stayed in the house, where she became a lamb to Jack Hightower's hired slaughterers.
And when Little Sister returned to the home, all ransacked and tossed about like a fight had taken place—which it had; Eldest One hadn't gone quietly—she simply righted the wooden chair by the window and sat in it, without a word.
In the village, Jack Hightower stood in the dirty, bustling town square, and he cried for everyone to be quiet and pay their due attention, and because he was Jack Hightower, every man, woman and child did not dare to refuse him. There was silence.
With his hired thugs and soldiers surrounding him, Jack Hightower pointed down at the young man and women who knelt before him with faces unwillingly pressed into the dirt by large armored hands, and he said, "Thieves."
Alfred was no longer conscious and could not reply, but through her sobs, Eldest One said, "No—"
"Yes. You conspired together to steal a white rose from my rosebush. My white rosebush which I planted for my wife. My dead wife. The only woman in the world which I have loved, and you stole the rose from her bush. Plucked callously and taken away by two ruffians who knew no better than to intrude without asking. Does not every woman and man in the village know not to pluck my roses?"
There came a wave of murmurs from the gathered crowd. They all knew. Alfred had known, and had still done it without hesitation, because he had felt no eyes on him. Eldest One had not known anything about it.
Jack Hightower said, "I am a fair and just man, although some who examine what I am about to do would not say so. I know justice—I walk with, and love, and sleep with Lady Justice. I know her scales and I know their balance. Your punishment will be fair."
And so, on Jack Hightower's orders, and with a blinking crowd of dead-eyed villagers following along, the crying Eldest One and her beau were dragged to the village bakery; and there, after some mild protests from the baker, it was agreed upon that the punishment would be done. And Eldest One and Alfred were forced to sit at a wooden table, held upright although both screamed, and their faces were stuffed with cake. And when no more cake was available, more was baked by the baker, and then, the lovers were stuffed more. Cake crumbled in their mouths, on their shirts, in their hair, and they begged and choked and cried. But Jack Hightower watched approvingly and said, "You like to steal, and you like to have what you should not have—well, here, have as much of it as you can take." And the sweet taste soon turned to dirt, to ash, in the mouths of the lovers. And as it went on, Jack Hightower threw coin after coin at the poor baker, who could not catch all of them, and was reduced to scrabbling below his oven for the coins; it was far more than the cake was worth.
But at home, Little Sister sat piously by the fire and prayed; and today, there was no more hair to be shorn, not a single strand.
After their first punishment was done, Jack Hightower had the boy and the girl taken from the bakery and brought to the blacksmith's shop. And there, Jack Hightower brought a well-made little silver knife from the blacksmith for twice its price, and flicked another shining golden coin at the blacksmith for his trouble, and then he had Eldest One's arm laid bare upon the table, stretched there with veins showing under the skin, even as she cried for mercy. And although he traced along her arm with the knife as though he meant to saw it away, he instead targeted her hair—those beautiful golden locks—and away they went, falling into the dirt on the floor. He did the same to Alfred's short brown hair, though it scarcely had the same effect. And still, the townspeople crowded into the small room, staring at the proceedings.
And for their third punishment, Jack Hightower ordered the two lovers brought to the town square once again, where they were quickly stripped naked before every man's eyes. And there, he had each and every citizen of the town take up their dinners—tomatoes, oranges, bananas, squash, lettuce, even bread, all manner of fruit and food—and toss them at the lovers, until their very bodies were painted with the colors of it, and until they were black and blue from the dozens of blows.
But at home, Little Sister was standing before the fire, carving lopsided words and benedictions into her scarred back.
At last, humiliated and with no tears left to shed, Alfred and Eldest One—bruised, cut, exhausted, humiliated—were sent to walk naked back to their homes. And Jack Hightower said unto the entire town, "This is the fate that awaits all who steal my roses, those which I planted for the memory of my wife, the woman to whom I was faithful all my life and am faithful to even in death." And all the townspeople heard, and knew, and were afraid; and none ever dared to pluck a rose from the bush in the meadow again, even the most mischievous of children or the most uncaring of young men. And Alfred and Eldest One would never look one another in the eye again as long as they lived, and Alfred would move far away to another village and marry a different girl, a girl who knew better than to encourage her man to evil deeds; and he would farm a good stretch of land, and his woman would grow fat, and bear many bouncing babies. But no such fate awaited his golden-haired girl from another life, the girl who had rejected the gods.
And when Eldest One stumbled, naked and dirty, back into the home where she had been born, she found a sister sitting by the fire who would not even turn her head to look.
Little Sister heard the creak of the door and the gasp of her sister's breath and the thump of her footsteps, and she said, "Welcome home, beloved one."
Eldest One could barely open her mouth to reply.