Welcome to episode 26 of the Vocabbett podcast! This is a special episode for me because it closes the loop on a story I first started writing more than TEN years ago.
Filled with obscure history, love, and heartache, it’s a tad more serious than the stories I normally write, but hopefully you still like it!
Since the history in this story is rather obscure, I definitely recommend listening to the podcast before/while reading the story. I wouldn’t read the story first!
Download the printable version, with definitions at the bottom of each page, here. Otherwise, feel free to read below! And to read the journal entry I wrote after first hearing this remarkable story, click here -> page one page two.
Last thing: I mentioned this in the podcast, but this story is PG-13. If you’re a younger student, this might not be the story for you!
I wanted to be in her bed, but I ended up in her walls instead.
6-foot thick monstrosities built to withstand the most fortified of armies, I imagine an antisocial hermit could live quite comfortably within them, scurrying through dank passageways to keep the fires lit for the royal family.
Unfortunately, I am neither antisocial nor a hermit. At least, I wasn’t twenty years ago. But low ceilings and a life in darkness have taken their toll. My arms remain capable — how could they not, when I do little but carry firewood? — but my broad shoulders have crumbled inward, and my head no longer rests proudly above my back.
Ah, how the follies of our youth shape our lives. But this is God’s amusement: youth is wasted on the young.
It all began with the dirndl. There is a terrible power coiled in those strings; they transform even the homeliest of shapes into Venus-worthy curves.
But here, again, I am distracted. Let me begin once more.
My father was a gardener at the castle. Perched high atop the cliffs, one cannot buy a loaf of bread without setting eyes upon it. My father’s position was one of great importance, even if society did not recognize it as such, for flowers were woven into the castle’s history.
You see, the archbishop who revitalized the castle, transforming it from a utilitarian fortress into the beauty it is today, was so in love with petunias that he hid 58 stone carvings of the flowers throughout the castle grounds.
I’ve never seen any, of course, but presumably such sculptures are placed on the other side of the walls.
When I was eight, my father began bringing me to the castle. He was training me to be his successor, and even knowing what I do now, I still smile when I think on those years. In my memory, I did little but draw beauty from the earth and admire the beauty of the princess.
She and I were companions. Oh, yes, the son of a gardener and the daughter of a king! Her governess would take her on walks through the gardens and, high-spirited as she was, she would escape.
One day she found me pruning a hedge, and after I (quite accidentally) nearly decapitated her, then nearly died of fear myself, we became friends, slipping away to play childish games. Her governess didn’t mind. Not really.
By the time we were old enough for such games to become inappropriate, society was far too concerned with the weather to care that a peasant and a princess were falling in love — for in the summer of my 13th year, summer did not come. Not long enough for the flowers to bloom or the crops to grow, at least.
The king sent for hot-house flowers from Italy. We contrived subtle enclosures and small, hidden fires to keep the gardens vibrant. It was the start of my fire-setting days, though I did not know it at the time.
By my 14th summer, I still knew little of life outside the castle and our modest cottage in the village, but I knew the world was not as it should be. Each morning, my father looked anxiously out the window, praying the snows would melt. When a fine layer still covered the earth by mid-May, my father announced that it would be another “lean” year.
And throughout it all, I was too busy considering how to win Princess Maria’s hand to worry about something as trivial as starvation. What is food compared to love?
Maria was betrothed already, of course. She had been since birth, promised to some German princeling called Otto. She was no more enthused than I was, but when summer did not come for a third year, everything changed.
Father was dismissed as palace gardener. We joined the masses in the bread lines, sleeping with vocal bellies and fear for the day to come. I should have been wiser then. I should’ve seen how quickly life can change, how it can snatch your dreams and your love with no remorse.
And yet, I merely saw it as an obstacle, a nuisance preventing me from joining Maria in the gardens. It was as though, if I could only find my way back to the castle and those sun-filled summers, all would be right again.
That’s when it happened. A position arose within the castle — not a coveted position, mind you, but the wages were good, and in my naïveté, I saw nothing but opportunity.
When I heard I’d be living in the castle walls, I did not think of the rats or the hours I’d toil in a smoke-filled haze. I saw only opportunity, a chance to return to the joys I once had.
I knew I’d seldom see the sun, but considered it a fair trade, considering I’d be closer to my love than ever before. I’d have every reason to be in the castle, in rooms most servants never see, since I’d be tending the fires.
I saw her again. Oh, yes, for two blissful years I saw her. We played games of all sorts as I tended the castle, free as a prince but with a slightly more labyrinthine bailiwick.
Tossing notes over hot embers, we scheduled assignations, exchanged scraps poetry, for she had taught me to read all those years ago. Once she asked to see what it was like behind the walls, squealing as she saw a mouse, then squealing again as I swooped her up to protect her.
It’s been eighteen years now. Eighteen years since she was sent to Germany, a walking treaty to stave off conflict between two old men.
She wept when she left, leaving me a stack of books as a final goodbye. They are all I have to remember her by. That, and a fireplace grown cold.