I KNOW ALL OF HIS NAMES
I died yesterday. I am quite sure of it. There came a moment when my heart stopped like a suffocated sparrow in my chest. I could not bear another breath of this heavy air, these walls so close around me, so I stopped bearing it. Just like that.
I'm still here, though, immured in my castle. The walls built to protect me so I could protect my people. People think of castles like the shells of eggs, protecting only what is within their walls. No. Castles are sheaths; they keep the weapons sharp.
Souls linger, long after bodies go cold. In the old days, whenever I killed, I would feel the soul still there in the room with me, looking over my shoulder at the bloodied body. So I am not surprised that my soul has not yet left this prison and made its way down to where I know it must travel.
I watch the evening meal pushed through the slit in the bricks on one side of my rooms. I watch the morning meal come in after it. They never bother with knives or plates or anything that might draw blood for me. They are afraid of me. Me! An old woman. Afraid of this rusted armour they forged to keep their softness safe, then discarded when the fashions changed. My bite kept the slavering kings of six neighbouring nations at bay; my bloodthirst kept my nation’s babies fed. My people are like an archer chary of his own bowstring, cringing as he draws. Don't they know I am theirs entirely?
How fickle my subjects are. They liked me bloody, once upon a time. They liked me just fine.
Now they handle me as if I were a hound in dotage, liable to bite the hand that feeds. Through the gap they push trenchers of brown bread with watery fish or beans slathered on top. Everything I eat has to be thin enough to get through the slot. I let the meals that come after my death lie on the stone floor, my gift to the flies. That, and my old woman's body, thin though it be.
Two meals. A full day, and my soul is still here.
"Hey," I shout.
No answer. Insolent bastard.
My soul wriggles into my limp body and crawls to the brick wall where once there was a door. I put my face to the slot. It is only the height from my chin to my top lip.
"Hey!" I shout again. "I'm dead, you know."
The voice of my jailer is slow in coming.
"No, Countess," he says. "You're not."
"Bah, shows what you know," I say. "What's your name?"
He says nothing. They never do answer that question, these boys sent to guard me, sent to make sure I don't get out. Perhaps they're afraid I'll use their names in witchcraft. People tell all sorts of stories about me, I am sure. Every story needs a monster and I make a very serviceable one. They say, now, I killed out of vanity. They find it expedient to forget that I learned from my husband, their thick-necked murderous bulwark. Women's crimes are individual; they die with the woman, and the state cannot be blamed. Let them say it was vanity. All is vanity, and my spirit is vexed no more.
My body is tired, though, so I drag it back into my cell, and look out into the mirk through my own eyes. Perhaps I am not dead after all. It is so hard to tell the difference, here in the dark.
"How can I tell if I'm dead?" I ask out loud, knowing the boy outside can hear me well enough. "You won't even let me have a mirror."
They don't answer me, so I puzzle over it for a while. It's possible, perhaps, that I am still alive. I can't feel life, in myself, alone. I haven’t been able to for many years. The only life I have known to be real, since I was very young, was the life I cut out of other people.
There is someone who can come and have a look at me, give me his opinion. Perhaps he can even give me what I told him to fetch me, months ago. If he’d done his duty I would be alive for certain now, and not alone.
I turn my face to the wall. The stone is as cold and gritty against my cheek as a beach lapped by the sea, and it smells like a cave. This is an old castle. My husband's castle, once upon a time. Mine now. It is my prison, yes, but it belongs to me, and so does its spirit.
I open my mouth against the cold stone. It tastes like gold in my mouth, like true ducats. My faithful castle.
The sound of the "R" pushes my lips flat against the stone, until I kiss it with the "ump" and then I flick my tongue with the "el" and breathe upon it with the "stilt" and finally press my teeth to the wall, curling my upper lip in a sneer, and say, "skin!"
I know all of his names. The walls whispered them to me, after I had been here for some months, and I had grown weary of scratching the days on the stone, of engraving filthy messages for my cowardly offspring to find on the day my corpse begins to stink. The walls took pity on me. I am one with the walls now, after all; I am immured.
These whispering walls told me his names in all the languages I know, which are many, for I was well educated. Some days I summon him in Hungarian, some in Latin. But today I am feeling German. It has something to do with being dead, probably. My mood is philosophical.
Rumpelstiltskin takes his time to appear. The little golden flecks in the stones glitter. Shadows deepen: there—the curve of his pointed chin. Ah ha, the flop of his cap. A crack shivers, the line of his bent back. He is hard-working, I will give him that.
The little man shrugs his way down out of the wall, leaving no gap or impression behind. His skin is grey but not like stone, rather like the hue of a body after it has been lying for a few days.
"Here I am," he grumbles.
"I'm dead," I say. "Don't you agree?"
"In a sense, I suppose."
I wonder which other castles he frequents, what other masters and mistresses he serves. He told me once that he is not only my castle's spirit but the spirit of all castles, and can be summoned in any of them, at any time. He is made of distrust and horsehair mortar, mainly.
"No, not in a sense," I tell him. "I mean I am really dead. I'm not breathing. I can't feel my heart beat."
He steps forward, sniffing. I kneel and let him examine me. I pull my matted hair away from my face so he can see. He leans his large ear toward my breasts, listening, his pallid skin close to mine.
"You are still breathing, Countess," he says.
"Are you sure?"
He nods. "Are you disappointed?"
I consider. "I suppose it is one more day without giving them the satisfaction. They let me keep my clothing hoping I'll hang myself, I know. So for that reason I am pleased to be alive."
"Good, then," Rumpelstiltskin says, stepping back. "I'll be going. If you'll oblige."
He wants me to say his name, to send him back into the rock, back where he goes when no one has need of him.
I shake my head. "Not yet. Tell me, how is your search proceeding? Have you found a baby girl for me?"
His eyebrows come together like two fox kits fighting over milk.
"The last one slipped through my fingers, I'm afraid."
"Slipped how? A baby is not slippery. This is the third one you have lost! Tell me what you are doing, and I'll tell you where you are going wrong."
It is such an easy task I have set him. I do not even require that the baby have blue eyes, as my Anastasia did, or a fine head of dark hair, as she did. Her hair was still wet from birthing when my husband took her from me, handed her to some nurse whose name I never learned. By the time I had borne him four more children, re-opening four times the wound stitched together when I was a girl, I had stopped asking him questions.
"I want a baby," I tell Rumpelstiltskin, slowly, to get the message through his stony pate. "I promise I won't hurt it. I have done with all that, I swear on the cross. I only want a baby of my own, to love, to share my cell with me. To give me life."
The little man nods. Pandering. "I tried. I truly did. I made a bargain."
"Bargain! What bargain? Foolishness. If you want a baby, you take it."
"I wanted no investigation, madam. I thought that best."
"Investigation. Bah. Let them try to pin anything on me, here in my prison. You are a bad liar. The truth is you have not got the strength for my business. You crumble at the slightest touch. And what happened? Did the baby not keep its end of the bargain?"
"Not the baby. The mother. But she did keep it. She—guessed my name. One of my names."
"Oh, God's blood. I suppose her walls must whisper too. Well, that is a stroke of bad luck."
He nods again, strangely eager. He thinks he's getting away with something. What does he know about babies and mothering, this little man of rock?
"You ridiculous creature. Gone soft inside, haven't you? Some protector spirit you are. You must do my bidding. Isn't that true? I commanded you by your name. If I ask you for a baby, a baby you will provide."
"Yes, madam. I am bound. I must do your bidding, and I have been working toward that end."
He looks at me as though I am the worst thing he has ever seen.
"Working at cross-purposes with yourself, if you ask me."
"Soon," he creaks. "I promise. I cannot fail."
No, he cannot fail, can he? I do not think he has it in him to fail. He is made of rock and moves through rock, this defender I have called into my service. But he can hinder me just as my own castle hinders me. He'll drag the task out until I'm dead, the infuriating creature. Perhaps I truly am dead already and he is afraid to tell me. Still as stone, mocking me from his shadows. I can barely see the shape of him in this evil light.
"Come closer," I say.
He takes a step.
"Closer still," I command.
He shuffles forward, on his little curled-toe shoes.
I beckon him with one finger, as if he were a child. He sighs, like a portcullis groaning shut, and crawls into my lap. He has done this for me before. Sometimes I have to remind him where his fealty lies. Like my people who cheered my savagery when it suited them, then shut me up like a rabid dog when it didn’t, sometimes he forgets.
He is heavier than he looks and I have to shift my legs a bit to get comfortable. His shoes, reddish-gray like granite, hang off my right thigh, and his head lolls on my left. His position is such that if he chose, he could turn his face up toward mine, as if in expectation of the breast. But he turns his face to the wall.
I gather him in my arms and begin to rock back and forth. My child. My own cold child.
Rumpelstiltskin was right: I am still alive after all. I feel it now. I run my finger down his cheek and scrape away a bit of lichen. His eyes are open, staring.
"Please," he says after a time, when the evening meal has splattered in through one slot, and the sunlight has dimmed in the other and we are in utter darkness. "Please say my name."
I shake my head. "Not just yet, little man. You will stay a little longer here with me."
KATE HEARTFIELD is a writer and editor in Ottawa, Canada. Her fiction has appeared recently in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, Lackington's and elsewhere. Her novella "The Course of True Love" was published in the 2016 collection Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World. Her website is heartfieldfiction.com and she is on Twitter as @kateheartfield.