That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me. She meant to bestow a gift. When I cried inconsolably through my first hour of life, my tears were her inspiration. Shaking her head sympathetically at Mother, the fairy touched my nose. "My gift is obedience. Ella will always be obedient. Now stop crying, child."
Father was away on a trading expedition as usual, but our cook, Mandy, was there. She and Mother were horrified, but no matter how they explained it to Lucinda, they couldn't make her understand the terrible thing she'd done to me. I could picture the argument: Mandy's freckles standing out sharper than usual, her frizzy gray hair in disarray, and her double chin shaking with anger; Mother still and intense, her brown curls damp from labor, the laughter gone from her eyes.
I couldn't imagine Lucinda. I didn't know what she looked like.
She wouldn't undo the curse.
My first awareness of it came on my fifth birthday. I seem to remember that day perfectly, perhaps because Mandy told the tale so often.
"For your birthday," she'd start, "I baked a beautiful cake. Six layers."
Bertha, our head maid, had sewn a special gown for me. "Blue as midnight with a white sash. You were small for your age even then, and you looked like a china doll, with a white ribbon in your black hair and your cheeks red from excitement."
In the middle of the table was a vase filled with flowers that Nathan, our manservant, had picked.
We all sat around the table. (Father was away again.) I was thrilled. I had watched Mandy bake the cake and Bertha sew the gown and Nathan pick the flowers.
Mandy cut the cake. When she handed me my piece, she said without thinking, "Eat."
The first bite was delicious. I finished the slice happily. When it was gone, Mandy cut another. That one was harder. When it was gone, no one gave me more, but I knew I had to keep eating. I moved my fork into the cake itself.
"Ella, what are you doing?" Mother said.
"Little piggy." Mandy laughed. "It's her birthday, Lady. Let her have as much as she wants." She put another slice on my plate.
I felt sick, and frightened. Why couldn't I stop eating?
Swallowing was a struggle. Each bite weighed on my tongue and felt like a sticky mass of glue as I fought to get it down. I started crying while I ate.
Mother realized first. "Stop eating, Ella," she commanded.
I stopped. Anyone could control me with an order. It had to be a direct command, such as "Put on a shawl," or "You must go to bed now." A wish or a request had no effect. I was free to ignore "I wish you would put on a shawl," or "Why don't you go to bed now?" But against an order I was powerless.
If someone told me to hop on one foot for a day and a half, I'd have to do it. And hopping on one foot wasn't the worst order I could be given. If you commanded me to cut off my own head, I'd have to do it.
I was in danger at every moment.
As I grew older, I learned to delay my obedience, but each moment cost me dear—in breathlessness, nausea, dizziness, and other complaints. I could never hold out for long. Even a few minutes were a desperate struggle.
I had a fairy godmother, and Mother asked her to take the curse away. But my fairy godmother said Lucinda was the only one who could remove it. However, she also said it might be broken someday without Luanda's help.
But I didn't know how. I didn't even know who my fairy godmother was.
Instead of making me docile, Lucinda's curse made a rebel of me. Or perhaps I was that way naturally.
Mother rarely insisted I do anything. Father knew nothing of the curse and saw me too infrequently to issue many commands. But Mandy was bossy, giving orders almost as often as she drew breath. Kind orders or for-your-own-good orders. "Bundle up, Ella." Or "Hold this bowl while I beat the eggs, sweet."
I disliked these commands, harmless as they were. I'd hold the bowl, but move my feet so she would have to follow me around the kitchen. She'd call me minx and try to hem me in with more specific instructions, which I would find new ways to evade. Often, it was a long business to get anything done between us, with Mother laughing and egging each of us on by turn.
We'd end happily—with me finally choosing to do what Mandy wanted, or with Mandy changing her order to a request.
When Mandy would absentmindedly give me an order I knew she didn't mean, I'd say, "Do I have to?" And she'd reconsider.
When I was eight, I had a friend, Pamela, the daughter of one of the servants. One day she and I were in the kitchen, watching Mandy make marchpane. When Mandy sent me to the pantry for more almonds, I returned with only two. She ordered me back with more exact instructions, which I followed exactly, while still managing to frustrate her true wishes.
Later, when Pamela and I retreated to the garden to devour the candy, she asked why I hadn't done what Mandy wanted straight off.
"I hate when she's bossy," I answered.
Pamela said smugly, "I always obey my elders."
"That's because you don't have to."
"I do have to, or Father will slap me."
"It's not the same as for me. I'm under a spell." I enjoyed the importance of the words. Spells were rare. Lucinda was the only fairy rash enough to cast them on people.
"Like Sleeping Beauty?"
"Except I won't have to sleep for a hundred years."
"What's your spell?"
I told her.
"If anybody gives you an order, you have to obey? Including me?"
"Can I try it?"
"No." I hadn't anticipated this. I changed the subject. "I'll race you to the gate."
"All right, but I command you to lose the race."
"Then I don't want to race."
"I command you to race, and I command you to lose."
We raced. I lost.
We picked berries. I had to give Pamela the sweetest, ripest ones. We played princesses and ogres. I had to be the ogre.
An hour after my admission, I punched her. She screamed, and blood poured from her nose.
Our friendship ended that day. Mother found Pamela's mother a new situation far from our town of Frell.
After punishing me for using my fist, Mother issued one of her infrequent commands: never to tell anyone about my curse. But I wouldn't have anyway. I had learned caution.
When I was almost fifteen, Mother and I caught cold. Mandy dosed us with her curing soup, made with carrots, leeks, celery, and hair from a unicorn's tail. It was delicious, but we both hated to see those long yellow-white hairs floating around the vegetables.
Since Father was away from Frell, we drank the soup sitting up in Mother's bed. If he had been home, I wouldn't have been in her room at all. He didn't like me to be anywhere near him, getting underfoot, as he said.
I sipped my soup with the hairs in it because Mandy had said to, even though I grimaced at the soup and at Mandy's retreating back.
"I'll wait for mine to cool," Mother said. Then, after Mandy left, she took the hairs out while she ate and put them back in the empty bowl when she was done.
The next day I was well and Mother was much worse, too sick to drink or eat anything. She said there was a knife in her throat and a battering ram at her head. To make her feel better, I put cool cloths on her fore¬head and told her stories. They were only old, familiar tales about the fairies that I changed here and there, but sometimes I made Mother laugh. Except the laugh would turn into a cough.
Before Mandy sent me off for the night, Mother kissed me. "Good night I love you, precious."
They were her last words to me. As I left the room, I heard her last words to Mandy. "I'm not very sick. Don't send for Sir Peter."
Sir Peter was Father.
The next morning, she was awake, but dreaming. With wide-open eyes, she chattered to invisible courtiers and plucked nervously at her silver necklace. To Mandy and me, there in the room with her, she said nothing.
Nathan, the manservant, got the physician, who hurried me away from Mother's side.
Our hallway was empty. I followed it to the spiral staircase and walked down, remembering the times Mother and I had slid down the banister.
We didn't do it when people were around. "We have to be dignified," she would whisper then, stepping down the stairs in an especially stately way. And I would follow, mimicking her and fighting my natural clumsiness, pleased to be part of her game.
But when we were alone, we preferred to slide and yell all the way down. And run back up for another ride, and a third, and a fourth.
When I got to the bottom of the stairs, I pulled our heavy front door open and slipped out into bright sunshine.
It was a long walk to the old castle, but I wanted to make a wish, and I wanted to make it in the place where it would have the best chance of being granted.
The castle had been abandoned when King Jerrold was a boy, although it was reopened on special occasions, for private balls, weddings, and the like. Even so, Bertha said it was haunted, and Nathan said it was infested with mice. Its gardens were overgrown, but Bertha swore the candle trees had power.
I went straight to the candle grove. The candles were small trees that had been pruned and tied to wires to make them grow in the shape of candelabra.
For wishes you need trading material. I closed my eyes and thought.
"If Mother gets well quick, I'll be good, not just obedient I'll try harder not to be clumsy and I won't tease Mandy so much."
I didn't bargain for Mother's life, because I didn't believe she was in danger of dying.