Once upon a time, in a far-off kingdom, there was a tall, strong woman with copper hair and gleaming eyes who had everything she ever wanted. She was married to a Baker and lived quite contentedly in a cottage deep in the forest until one day, temptation arrived, in the form of a moment. Another moment followed, and then a moment after that. Something called to her, redefined her, and made her ache for more. It killed her and filled her up, these desires, just waiting to spill out and spill over, moment after passing moment in the woods.
Her Baker was kind to her, and he made her laugh.
"A fire tonight?" he asked, after the sun dropped below the horizon and the chill began to lap through the cabin. She finished wiping her last iron pot and nodded. He always built a good fire.
In front of it he nestled beside her, under the blanket she crotcheted herself, and she trailed her fingers through his curly hair.
"Long day," he sighed.
"We saw no customers," she said, matter-of-factly.
"But my sourdough --"
"Your sourdough rose, and tomorrow it will rise again. Just as surely as yesterday's is growing stale on the sill as we speak."
He peered up at her. Those huge trusting eyes she fell for when she was just a lonesome girl leaving her own mother's kitchen. "Part of my plan, my darling," he assured her.
"To get the birds on our side," he grinned. "Don't tell me they don't enjoy my crumbs. They eat the largest share."
She kissed him on the top of the head. He was too fanciful, her mother had warned her, when she left to marry him after only a week of courtship. His kind were dreamers. That won't put a roof over your head, her mother had tsked.
She loved him most for his fancy, this man who charmed even the birds.
"Take me to bed," she whispered. "Let's make a child."
He was on his feet, lithe, and dancing her to the bedroom before she realized it, and the fire burned itself out in the fireplace, unattended.
The copper in her hair began to gray, strand by strand, and the seasons came and passed at their little cabin in the woods, along with the occassional customer, generations of birds, and every now and again a visit from the next-door crone. The Baker's Wife experimented with needlework and novel-writing, and during the day she combed the small, tamed area of woods near their cottage, gathering nuts and fruit and hoping, just for a second, to see something completely new. She snared a rabbit and drained it upside-down, the blood dripping onto the dark, ancient stain behind the storeroom.
She continued to crave.
At night her Baker tickled her, and streaked her grey and copper hair with flour, and they tussled and played in the great oaken bed he had made for her the first month they were married.
"The King is giving a festival," she remarked, idly, curling against her husband one night. "Three days of glamour, gluttony and beauty beyond compare. All the most eligible ladies in the land, vying for the prince's hand."
"You are beauty beyond compare," he whispered to her. "You are more stunning, more radiant, more bewitching than anyone in the world, and how I got you to be mine I will never know." He meant it. She didn't believe him, but she kissed the crook of his arm. The inexplicable craving grew stronger.
"Still --" she mused. "A festival at the palace. I wish --"
"What do you wish?" he asked, and he stroked her long hair, dark in the moonlight.
"I don't know," she answered, after a long while. Long enough for her Baker to have fallen sound asleep.
"I want a child," she said, the next morning. "I'm tired of waiting."
The Baker chuckled. "You know how these things work. Unless you were expecting the stork?"
She sighed and sat down. "Something's missing," she said. She didn't want to tell him how desperately she longed to stray from their little patch of forest, to have some adventure, to meet someone new. Instead she said what she knew he'd understand. "It's lonely, just the two of us."
"Just the two of us," he nodded. Maybe he agreed.
She cleared breakfast. He went to poke the ovens. She found a novel she'd only read twice and she immersed herself in it for the rest of the afternoon. That night they slept apart, but in the morning she found she had flour in her hair.
When their closest neighbor -- a mad middle-aged woman, wickedly beautiful and with a surprisingly healthy vegetable garden that spread as far beyond the Baker's little cottage as anyone could see with the naked eye -- came over to trade for her weekly bread and spout her superstitious nonsense, the Baker's Wife got her first taste of what might be out there for her beyond her little grove. So when opportunity presented itself, the Baker's Wife seized the passing moment and held on for her life.
"A curse!" the Baker was horrified. The witch had gone and left them to ruminate on her absurd superstitions about how to go about getting pregnant. That magic mumbo-jumbo never held much credibility with the Baker's Wife, but the idea of running around the forest on a treasure hunt compelled her.
The Baker's Wife patted her stomach. "It's as good an explanation as any," she shrugged.
"The spell's on my house," the Baker said, ashamed. "I'm sorry."
He believed so deeply in the curse that the pain creased his forehead. She didn't tell him that curses were nonsense, that we made our own destiny, that we must and always strike out on our own adventures, not knowing what might result.
Instead she said, "You didn't do this to us. The self-styled witch next door did."
The Baker managed one of his braver smiles. "And I shall lift the curse!" He headed for the coat closet to find his scarf and hat.
"We shall lift the curse together," she said, squeezing his hand, but when he turned around to look at her he looked threatened.
"No!" he exclaimed. "You are all I have, and there is no way I'll risk losing you in the woods. There are witches out there, and wolves, and things you'd be better off never knowing about. Why do you think I insist you stay close to our cottage at all times? There are dangers in the woods!"
"And you are all I have," she said, cleanly and forcefully. "The spell is on our house, and we shall lift it together, and that is final."
He groaned. "Just make my preparations, woman! I shall need provisions, as well as some sort of weapon --"
"Weapon!" she exclaimed. "To defend yourself against the wolves and monsters, no doubt."
"I told you, it will be dangerous," he hissed.
She nodded, packing his duffel as well as her own and tucking her hair up into a rust-colored travelling net to keep it from her eyes.
"Well then, my brave Baker," she said, turning him around to face her and straightening his scarf. "If you can tell me what you were to return with, I will kiss you squarely on the mouth and bid you the best of luck in getting our curse lifted."
He furrowed his brow. "Four.... items?"
She met his eye. "The cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold," she intoned. Without her, he didn't stand a chance, and she knew it, and thus her adventure in the woods. The cow was a moment, the slippers quite another. The moments begun to string together, like beads on a chain, like verses in a song.
Into the woods, to seek her fortune, to see something new, to make it all the way to the king's festival.
She shouldered a staff and set out for the woods without even waiting for her husband -- stocky, shorter-limbed and weighed down with a massive pack -- to catch up. She took her first real breath when she left the boundaries of her property, crossed the witch's garden, and stepped into the overhanging shadows that fringed the entrance to the deep, dark, dangerous wood.
"I must leave you here," her husband said. He draws himself to his full height and he was scarcely trembling. Strong against the darkness. "I must do this on my own."
"Then go," she said, and waved a handkerchief. He wasn't ten paces away before she turned around for home, but she stopped, caught in her tracks by the faint sound of music.
There were no coincidences, but time made simple work of its business, and when it was time for a wood to come to life -- when it was time for people to meet, lives to be made and built and saved, great stories of unforgettable moments to be made, and told, and retold -- life will make its way to the wood.
That's why, walking home, the Baker's Wife heard the trumpets signalling a duke's band, and why instead of returning to her own grove she followed the royal procession -- from a safe distance, mind -- through the winding paths and into the woods, toward the palace. Music poured from the royal yards, and horses crowded the paths where the avenues intersect. The air smelled tantalizingly of perfumes and manure, and the Baker's Wife followed the scent, deeper into the woods, toward the palace.
As a rule the Baker's Wife considered the monarchy rather stale, but the young princes and dukes were strapping indeed and their shameless display of wealth and pageantry was always awe-inspiring in its staggering sprawl. So if the royal family chose to keep its little traditions alive, all that arranged marriage business and the like, it seemed to be working for them as well as anything else. And, the Baker's Wife conceded, it was true that her own little plot of land had flourished over the years, under the Queen's rule.
Yet, the idea of standing this close to the palace on the night that the prince might be choosing his mate made the Baker's Wife a little weak in the knees, and she leaned on a tree to catch her breath.
She saw the shoes first, then the girl, and later she realized the girl was so blindingly beautiful it made her forget the shoes for a time. The girl had caramel-colored hair and bewitching eyes, and she dashed toward her carriage with the steady pace of a practiced runner. When she reached the Baker's Wife she scowled.
"What are you doing here, woman?"
"Tell me of the festival," the Baker's Wife said, breathlessly and before she could stop herself.
The young woman nodded, looking bored. She sat down on a stump and obligingly began to describe the tables of food, the rich tapestries that hung the walls, the draftiness of the ballroom.
The Baker's Wife was as patient as she could manage before blurting, "What was the prince like, after all? Was he towering, tall, with golden hair, and muscles that rippled through his shirtsleeves? Did he recite poetry in a low, lumbering voice? Did he, dear god, smell of musk and leathers, not yeast and sourdough?"
"He chased me," the girl said, finally. "I have to go."
The Baker's Wife watched her, this beautiful maiden rushing away from all that promise, riches and love and royalty, lope back toward her carriage.
"I suppose you do," she said. And then she saw the shoes again, and then she remembered her Baker and she was embarrassed.
"I need your shoe!" the Baker's Wife shouted, tearing after the young girl. But the palace bells chimed midnight and the girl was a strong runner; gone into the darkness before the Baker's Wife could cross a dozen yards of tangled roots.
That night the Baker's Wife dreamed of the maiden, her lonesome eyes and careful features, her calloused hands. Another peasant, caught up in the woods, the Baker's Wife figured, lying in bed beside her husband with one midnight gone. Tomorrow she will find the maiden, she promised herself, rolling over. Whether it was for the shoe or for another reason, she wasn't sure. And when she woke up and she was sure, surer than she'd ever been, she set out early, separate from her husband.
She found the girl at the base of a tall stone tower, moss covered and reeking of age. The maiden was weeping.
"How can you know what you want," she asked, without preamble. "Until you get what you want and you see if you like it?"
The Baker's Wife shrugged. "How should I know?"
"So you're in the woods again," the maiden said.
"The festival," the maiden said. Then the Baker's Wife noticed that the woman was only wearing one of the golden slippers, her other foot stocking-bare.
"My husband didn't come by here and take that from you, did he?" The Baker's Wife asked.
The maiden looked puzzled.
"The shoe," the Baker's Wife said. "My husband. Short man, all bluster? Wearing a knit cap?"
The maiden smiled. "I have not seen such a man," she said. "Why, is he missing?"
And now the Baker's Wife smiled. "No," she admitted. "I am. Missing something, anyway." There was a pause. "And tonight's festivities?" she prompted.
"My mother died," the young woman said. "My father remarried -- a frightful woman, but grand countess of something-or-other so she knew all the right people. And she had these two wretched daughters just my age, so of course each of them thought she would be just perfect for the young crown prince's hand."
The maiden held out her palms. "Scullery maid, chimney sweep, gardener, cook. It all amounts to the same."
The Baker's Wife took the young woman's hands. So calloused, so like her own. "That's something," she told the girl. "Work is something to be proud of. I scoff at the soft-palmed ingenues who are doomed to spend their lives surrounded by handmaidens because they can't do a thing for themselves."
Then she laughed, a loud, full, tear-producing laugh. "What I wouldn't give to be in their shoes," the Baker's Wife sighed, shaking her head. "Even if just for a moment."
"What good is a moment?" the maiden asked.
The Baker's Wife reached up and stroked the girl's cheek. A ribbon of auburn hair fell across the back of the Baker's Wife's freckled, time-worn hand as she pulled the girl's face closer. "All we have are moments," she said. And then, boldly and almost out of nowhere, "May I kiss you?"
And she did, and the girl kissed her back. And time stood still in the woods for them, as they breathed, and explored, and stretched and stroked and clawed at one another, hungrily and with delectable abandon on the forest's mossy floor.
Afterward, her lips still wet, the Baker's Wife thought of her Baker once again.
The beautiful, strong young scullery maid laid beside her, spent and panting. "This was wrong," she said, though she didn't sound like she meant it.
"Anything can happen in the woods," the Baker's Wife said. After a pause, she added, "you say the prince pursued you?"
"I left a shoe at the palace. He can find me if he chooses," the girl said flatly. "Unless --"
The girl the crown prince wanted was here with the Baker's Wife instead, sweaty and reeking of sex.
"Who needs a prince?" The Baker's Wife said, almost more to herself. Why should she want a prince when she had a Baker, when she could come to the woods and have her moments. With more years of her life behind her than ahead, the Baker's Wife had snagged the prince's prize all by herself.
She stood up then, smoothed her skirts and looked around, this time actually wondering where her husband had gotten off to and what kind of trouble he might be in.
"I need your shoe," the Baker's Wife said.
"So you can find me if you choose?" the girl giggled.
Then the Baker's Wife realized just how painful a moment could be, right there with this princess-to-be looking at her with lust and desire. The girl reached down, removed her shoe, and handed it to the Baker's Wife with a wink.
"All we have are moments," said the Baker's Wife. "Find your prince. Take the leap. Fall in love." She turned the shoe over in her hands a few times.
"I guess," the girl said.
"I must leave you," the Baker's Wife said, finally.
"Why?" the girl asked.
Instead of answering, the Baker's Wife took off, clutching the shoe, while wind and leaves whipped at the tears stinging her eyes.
She found her husband. They found a cow, a cape, some hair, and eventually their child, a chubby little boy who was wonderful in every way and entirely someone new. And during the day while her Baker baked, the Baker's Wife sang songs to her son about the wonders to be found in the woods, and the reminder that anything worth having comes with danger and uncertainty, witches and wolves.