My parents taught me to lie as soon as I could speak. Before I knew the meaning of the words, before I understood heat or fire, and long before I felt the pain of singed flesh, I learned to tell strangers that I burned myself by grasping a hot iron pot.
Once a day, my mother would pour water over my bare hands, then bandage each one down to the wrists, first with cloth of gold, then plain muslin. She had a technique for winding them in a way that left each finger separate but fully covered, and at no point would her skin come into contact with mine. When I was old enough, she taught me how to wrap them myself. By then, I also understood the danger that she had put herself in.
My parents allowed me to transform small items and only rarely, usually before we approached a large city where people would ask fewer questions about our wares. They let me play with other children, never roughly. After all, if I had burned myself, I would find it painful to use my hands. Other boys my age would wrestle and scuffle. I always ran from a fight.
I was happiest when we were on the road. I could relax around my parents. I was often clumsy because of my bandages, but I could perform basic tasks. My mother, Niraja, taught me how to slice vegetables and boil grains, how to groom our horses, and how to whistle like a bird. My father, Padmanabhan, showed me how to construct a simple bow and arrow, how to mark time by the sun, and how to navigate by the stars. They both shared their tricks for accounting.
“We are not so weak-minded that we need a ledger,” my father would say. “And our memories are safe from rain damage or theft.”
At night, they would take turns telling me stories from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Panchatantra, and point out the names of the constellations. I knew which stars pointed the way home—to my parents’ villages—and I knew the names of everyone from my great-grandparents onward; every cousin, aunt, and uncle, though I had never laid eyes on a single one.
We passed through many cities and countries. The great metropolis of Constantinople made a strong impression with its buildings decorated in golden domes and intricate tile mosaics. It bustled with people, some whose skin didn’t darken from the sun, others with eyes that gleamed blue or green like a peacock’s feathers. People came in all shapes, sizes, and colors, including those with missing limbs or eyes. No one cared about my hands. I wanted to stay there forever, but my parents would not hear of it.
“Too dangerous,” my father said. “What if someone discovers what you can do, Ram?”
And so we moved on, as we did for years, never staying in one place longer than a few days. I had no friends except for my golden fox.
Just before my first birthday, my father returned from several months on the road to the place my mother had stayed since her labor. He arrived a few weeks before the monsoon, the same rains that had trapped him a year earlier.
When my mother began to experience birthing pains, my parents were in the land of the rajputs, in a small state ruled by a newly self-anointed king. An old rishi, a woman who spent most of her time communing with the gods, took them in and helped with my mother’s labor. The streets flooded up to my father’s knees on the day I was born. Some locals said it was fitting that the clouds had ended their pregnancy on the same day as my mother. Others said that gods brought the water as an answer to our prayers. Either way, my parents named me Rampalalakshmicharan, after Lord Vishnu and his consort, the Goddess Lakshmi.
“When we named you,” my mother would say, “we laid you at their feet and asked them to bless you with health, wisdom, and prosperity.”
My mother learned to spin and weave while my father was away. She had a knack for producing gold thread, prized by the king, and found employment in the palace—temporary, until I was old enough that we could travel together.
My father gifted me a small wood carving that he’d acquired on his travels.
“This creature is called a fox,” he said. “I received it from a man with skin as pale as the rising moon. He was from a land called Bavaria.”
When the carving entered my grasp, it turned gold.
My parents were so astonished that my father snatched it away, causing me to sit and wail in protest. My father then bit it, marking the tail, and pronounced it real. He declared that I must have received Goddess Lakshmi’s blessing.
My mother, however, had heard the tale of King Midas, and panicked. “If he has a golden touch, it could be deadly. We should take him to see the rishi, the one who helped with his birth.”
“You watch over him,” my father said. “I’ll go get the woman.”
While he was away, my mother’s gaze fell upon the gold uttariya that she’d been weaving for the queen. She took the fabric and placed it into my hands. Being made of golden thread, it did not change, so she wrapped it around my hands and tied it tight. Then she took a piece of plain white muslin and placed it over the precious material. The cloth remained as it was.
When the wise woman arrived and saw what I could do, she left to meditate and commune with the gods. She was gone for an entire day and night. At last, she returned and said, “He is indeed blessed by the goddess, but it’s a dangerous gift. You must beware the king’s greed. If he discovers what your son can do, he will take the child away to be his personal coffer.”
Even my father was troubled by this. Monarchs weren’t the only people filled with greed. Anyone who learned of my gift might abuse me.
“Help us,” my mother begged the rishi. “Pray to Sri Lakshmi, and ask her to take away this boon.”
The old woman shook her head. “That might anger the goddess. You shouldn’t appear ungrateful.”
After some discussion, the rishi devised a curse, one whose words I know by heart because my mother repeated them to me every night before I slept and every morning when I awoke: “If Rampalalakshmicharan turns an object into gold for another person, they must give him whatever he demands in return. If they don’t, the golden object will turn to ash and he will lose his ability forever.”
It wouldn’t guarantee my safety, especially not while I was too young to understand the consequences of my actions, but it meant that no one could abuse my gift forever.
That night, my parents packed my mother’s few possessions into our family wagon and fled the palace. As a traveling merchant, my father already knew how to live as an itinerant. My condition meant that they moved more quickly than they might have otherwise, but it was our way of life, and for the most part, I liked it. My father picked up and traded wood carvings along the way, but the golden fox belonged to me. At some point, our journey gained a destination, one that all three of us felt curious about: Bavaria.
The air grew colder as we traveled further northwest than we had ever gone. The rains fell in heavy sheets, the wind blew mercilessly, and two days after we crossed the border into the land of foxes, my father fell sick. After my mother and I caught the same illness, we stopped near the next village. Fever held us all for a while, but we huddled in our wagon and drank tea and broth. I recovered my strength first. My mother followed. My father didn’t.
My mother wished to give him as proper a funeral as she could with no priest accessible. She drove the wagon off the road, into the surrounding forest. I helped her gather wood. My bandages were laced with splinters, and my arms ached, but after two days, we had collected enough for my father’s funeral pyre. They don’t burn their dead in that part of the world so we did our best. It’s strange what lingers in my memory all these years later—the overpowering smell of smoke, the quiet sobs of my mother at night, the first snowflakes falling from the sky.
It was too dangerous for my mother to continue alone with me, so we were effectively stranded in Talgove, a small village that mostly functioned as farmland and a waystation for travelers to Salzburg, our intended destination. The few stone buildings belonged to a man named Konrad, a vassal of the local noble lord, and consisted of his house, a watermill, and an inn. The bulk of the villagers worked the land and lived in huts made of straw. Of the many places I had seen in those early years of my life, this one did not impress me as a good place to stay, but my mother was too distraught over our circumstances, and I was too young to do anything else.
We didn’t speak Bavarian, but trade is universal, and we managed to get ourselves into an abandoned hut on the edge of a field in exchange for our horses and wagon. We kept the trading goods for a while, doling them out for food, but the village was small and we ran out of things they wanted. We might have starved to death that first winter but for the kindness of the miller’s wife.
I have only the vaguest memories of Herlinde’s face, but I remember her pale hair, which shone like my mother’s gold threads. She visited our hut once a week to bring us flour, which my mother turned into flatbreads. She and Blasius, the miller, had two daughters. Ilsebill took after her father’s looks, with darker hair and a stick thin frame. Trudy, the younger one, had her mother’s yellow hair and a softer figure. The girls would sometimes accompany Herlinde during her charity visits.
Ilse was only a year younger than me and plenty willing to run and play with a stranger who didn’t speak her language. I learned most of my Bavarian from her. Trudy, however, clung to her mother’s skirts and preferred quieter pastimes. She would sit while my mother showed Herlinde the various spinning tools she’d acquired during our travels. It was weaving season, and my mother learned as much from Herlinde as she taught, going so far as to trade looms with her. Ilse and I would head straight for the trees.
My first clear memory of Ilse has to do with my hands. We were out playing somewhere in the woods behind the hut, when she said, “Ram, why do you keep your hands like that?”
I tripped over the old lie about having burned them. We had lived in one place for so long that it no longer made sense. I was terrified. What could I say that she would believe? I grasped for a word and came up with schlecht. I knew it meant that something was not good.
“Oh.” She grabbed a low-hanging branch and swung from it. “Well, can you do this?”
I nodded, my heart pounding with relief, and proceeded to hoist myself up and onto the branch.
Ilse dropped down and ran off, calling, “Follow me!”
I did, tripping over unfamiliar roots and getting smacked by bushes from her wake.
She stopped in a small clearing surrounding two large beech trees whose upper branches had grown together.
“This one’s mine.” She pointed to the left. “And that’s yours. Race you to the top!”
Ilsebill scaled the tree like a squirrel. That first time up was no contest, but we visited the spot every time Herlinde came to see my mother, almost weekly. As spring warmed the land, I grew stronger, and by the start of summer, I could almost keep up with my friend.
And then one day, as the last of the spring blossoms fell, Herlinde stopped coming by. Three weeks later, she was dead. By mid-summer, one fifth of the villagers had perished from fever. Whatever the disease was, it ran its course. My mother and I escaped death once more. Perhaps our remote location saved us, or perhaps our gods, to whom we prayed daily, gave us protection.
I didn’t see Ilse again until the autumn. On a day when the leaves whispered in drifts against the hedgerows, and the harvested wheat stood in great sheaves, all work stopped in the village. Like everyone else, my mother and I went to the mill for the harvest festival. We had managed the summer by helping in the fields and foraging in the woods. Other than Herlinde, no one had befriended my mother, but they had grown used to our presence, or so I thought.
Konrad, the steward, presided over the festivities, which included free food and drink. As we approached a table, I heard someone mutter the word hexe. Being a child and without inhibitions, I looked around and spotted a cluster of adults speaking in low tones and glancing at my mother. Their expressions were unfriendly. I huddled closer to my mother.
We had dressed in our finest clothes for the occasion. The bright, intricate patterns made us shine like gems among the dyed woolen tunics around us.
“She can spin silk into gold,” someone muttered.
My mother, being an adult, kept her gaze fixed straight ahead, chin high. Her thick, black hair hung to her waist in a neat braid. No matter how cold, she washed daily and insisted I do the same. We did not resemble the people of Talgove.
My anxiety was forgotten as I devoured a piece of cake. I spotted Ilsebill and Trudy playing with a group of children. I waved, and Ilse waved back. She gestured for me to join them, and after a nod from my mother, I ran off.
The group stopped as I approached.
A tall boy with reddish-brown hair and orange freckles stepped forward. “I’m Konrad stewards-son. Who are you?”
“His name is Ram-pala-lakshmi-charan…near-the-wood,” Ilsebill said, enunciating each syllable with precision. It had taken her several attempts to learn my name.
Konrad snorted. “He doesn’t need a byname. We’ll not have another Rumpel…stick-man in our village any time soon.”
“You can call me Ram,” I said. There were parts of the world where the length of my name didn’t cause difficulty, but this was not one of them.
“Do you know how to play tag?” Ilse asked.
I nodded. Games of chase-and-catch were universal.
“What’s wrong with your hands?” Konrad demanded.
Before I could explain, Ilse spoke. “His hands have an infirmity. He has to keep them wrapped up always.”
I hadn’t heard the word before, but I memorized it on the spot.
Konrad grinned. “Then he can be It first! Don’t let the diseased hands touch you,” he shrieked as he ran off.
The other children screamed and fled. Before long, I was joyfully covered in sweat and dust as we chased each other. Their taunts might sound cruel to an adult, but at the time, I had no room for such qualms. I had playmates! I left them with heavy feet when my mother called me away.
“Can’t I stay?” I begged.
She shook her head. In a low voice, she said, “The men will start drinking soon. We’ll be safer at home.”
The next afternoon, Ilse showed up at our door with a basket of bread and cheese. She wore a gown like a woman rather than the tunic of the previous day.
“I asked Papa if I could do the charity work that Mama did. He said I’m old enough now that I have eleven years.”
“Can you play?” I looked dubiously at her dress.
A mischievous smile lit her face, and her brown eyes twinkled. She lifted the cloth wrapping out of the basket. It was a tunic.
“I’ll change in the woods,” she said.
We ran off and found our favorite spot. She made me turn around while she dressed. After an hour of practicing our acrobatic and balancing skills, she transformed back into a modest young woman and left.
When I returned home, my mother thwacked me across the head twice. “Once for playing with that girl who’s no longer a girl, and once for wasting time in the woods.”
“We’re just climbing trees!”
“Be sure that’s all you do.”
After that, I would always leave home a little later than Ilse, and I would forage for herbs and greens before I returned. My mother liked to prepare them in our traditional ways. She had learned to improvise when we ran out of the spices, rice, and legumes that we’d brought with us. As long as I came home with my hands full, she didn’t object to my time in the woods.
From then on, Ilse came every other week, just as Herlinde had. We snuck off to play for an hour unless it was too wet. Sometimes she had Trudy along, which prevented our play time, until one day, Ilse had a brilliant idea.
“Could you show Trudy those spinning devices?” Ilse asked my mother. “I can help Ram gather some herbs for you while you teach her.”
“Of course,” she said. “Perhaps she’d like to try the hand loom, too?”
After that, Trudy accompanied Ilsebill on every visit. My mother said Trudy had the knack for spinning, just as she herself did.
“If only I had gold, I could show her how to make thread,” my mother said after one visit. “That’s not a request, Ram.” She wrapped a freshly woven length of linen around my hands. “And be careful while you’re out in the woods. Don’t let the outer cloth tear.”
I suspect that my mother knew that Ilse and I did more than gather herbs, given the terrible state of my outer wrappings on those days, but she also realized that I was still very much a child, too much so to care about the trouble young men and women could get into. And while I tried to hide my loneliness, she would have observed that none of the other children ever came to play with me.
The apple trees were blooming when my mother and I took our first trip to Salzburg. She’d heard from some passing merchants that late spring brought spices and grains from the Far East up the river, and wanted to see if we could buy some. By then, the village had learned of her skill with spinning and weaving, and she spent more time making thread or cloth than in the fields.
We hitched a ride on a hay wagon, part of a train passing through Talgove. Clouds of pale pink blossoms covered the orchards we passed. My mother smiled a true and proper smile for the first time I could remember since we’d arrived in Bavaria. Trudy had gifted her a woolen shawl—one that Trudy had woven with her help—and she wore it over one of her old cotton traveling tunics.
That morning, she had taken my father’s silk clothes from our remaining bronze traveling chest, intending to sell them. I could tell it broke her heart from the way she clamped the delicate fabric in her fists.
“Amma, instead of those, let me turn something gold to trade,” I said.
She shook her head. “The villagers will be suspicious. I’ve told them for months now that I have nothing left to trade. I have only the box spindle and the small handloom, and I need those for myself. I can only hope the merchants in Salzburg will accept your father’s clothes.”
“There are caves not far from here that have gold veins, and the boys in the village say that sometimes you can find small nuggets by the river. I could transform some very small stones and cover them with mud?”
Her expression twisted with doubt.
I felt my father’s spirit at my shoulder, whispering that I should behave as a man, not a boy, and use my gift to help our family. “Please! I’m useless without my hands. I can’t work in the fields or chop wood. I can’t even do women’s work because I’m too clumsy for spinning or sewing. You’ve always said that one day I’ll be grown enough that I can safely use my gift.” I was twelve years old and nearly as tall as my mother. “How much longer do I have to wait?”
With a crease in her brow, my mother nodded.
Pebbles studded the soil liberally, and it took me minutes to find several the size of my littlest fingertip. As I loosened the bandage on my left hand, my mother stopped me.
“Tell me the words of the curse,” she said.
“If Rampalalakshmicharan turns an object into gold for another person,” I recited, “they must give him whatever he demands in return. If they don’t, the golden object will turn to ash and he will lose his ability forever. You make me repeat it every night.”
She smacked me lightly on the head. “And you should thank me for it. They are the most important words of your life. If you do this, you must also make the trades.”
I shook my head and continued to unwrap my hand. “I’ll give them to you in exchange for Appa’s clothes.”
Her eyes glimmered with tears. “Clever boy,” she said as I gently prised the clothing from my mother’s grasp.
I folded them neatly, and slid them into the secret compartment at the bottom of the trunk, along with my golden fox, our other silks, and a length of spare gold cloth for my hands. Traveling merchants have their tricks, and this chest had a false bottom to fool any thieves or bandits.
We arrived at Salzburg’s central market at midday. The sun shone high overhead in a blue sky dotted with cottony clouds, and the open space bustled with merchants and their wares. The city didn’t impress me nearly as much as Constantinople. From the way Konrad and other village children had talked, I had expected a much larger and grander metropolis. A lord’s manor dominated the houses on a low hill overlooking the Salzach river. The only other sizable structure was a church.
The market spilled out like a natural growth from the river docks. I heard languages that hadn’t fallen on my ears in a long time. I still remembered many of the basic words involved in trade, especially numbers. Most of the shoppers were Bavarian, but the merchants came from far and wide, and their appearance spanned a variety of colors and features. I felt at home in a way that I hadn’t during our years in Talgove.
It took some searching, but eventually my mother found and purchased some of the items she’d wanted. With the leftover money, she bought me a fur-lined leather cloak that hung to my waist. A few merchants looked askance at my bandaged hands. Diseases traveled as well as humans, and we couldn’t use the lie about my burns anymore, so I wore the cloak in spite of the mild weather, and hid my hands under it.
That was the first time I felt anger mingled with the usual fear of discovery. It struck me as terribly unfair that I had to conceal my ability, and worse, that it had turned me into a person who was shunned when I should rightly have been revered. My mother hadn’t allowed me to disclose my magic to anyone, but I had nothing else of value—no trade, no prospects. The lowliest peasant could work the land, but to preserve my deception, I had to act as if that was beyond me. I couldn’t even wear gloves, which only the noble could afford. My golden touch surpassed the abilities of kings! I shouldn’t have to hide in shame.
The market revealed a way to put my gift to good use. I could improve our fortunes, earn us a way home. If we lived among family, I wouldn’t have to hide the truth. People would appreciate my gift for what it was: a blessing of the gods. All I had to do was keep it a secret until then. On that day in Salzburg, my path to freedom lay ahead like a gleaming ribbon.
Word must have spread in Talgove that my mother had spent an unusual amount during our market outing, because a few weeks after our excursion, some of the young men paid a visit to our hut and dragged me and my mother outside.
“We’re here for your gold,” said the biggest one in a matter-of-fact tone. Walter Up-hill, I recalled. He had no children, but he had rounded up a dozen youths for this task. The sour smell of ale hung about them in an invisible cloud.
“We don’t have any gold,” my mother replied truthfully. She kept her eyes to the ground, her voice soft but firm. We’d traded all of the nuggets at Salzburg, and I hadn’t bothered to make more.
Walter smacked her across the face with the back of his hand, the sound of it sharp and quick, like the noise made by a length of wet cloth against a rock.
“Don’t lie to us, witch, or we’ll burn you at the stake!” He nodded to the two boys behind him. They entered our hut, and we could hear the crack of pottery smashing.
“Please, we have nothing,” she begged.
I watched it all with a building fury, but I had a child’s body and couldn’t match the men for strength. Besides, my parents had taught me never to fight. I had no idea how to handle myself in that situation except to make sure my hands stayed protected. So I did the only thing I could.
“I found the gold by the river,” I cried out. “But we spent it all.”
“Then find us some more,” Walter demanded.
“It’ll be dark soon. I’ll look tomorrow,” I said.
“All right. We’ll come back in three days at sunset. You’d better have some gold for us, little man.”
They left us alone. My mother trembled as she swept out the shattered remnants of our crockery.
“What will we do?” she fretted. Her lower lip swelled from the cut left by Walter’s blow.
“I can make some nuggets,” I said. “It’s easy.”
“Foolish child! You’ve memorized the words, but have you understood them? Do you think those men will give you anything you demand in exchange for the gold?”
“I’ll trade it to you first, like before.”
“And then what? Do you think they’ll stop coming after one time? What happens when I have nothing left to give you in return? I hardly own anything as it is, and if anything happened to me, you’d have no way to continue the bargain. You should have kept quiet.”
I unleashed my pent-up rage at her. “So they could destroy the rest of our things? Or drag you off and burn you? You should thank me for saving us!”
She met my glare with a sigh and shook her head. “I’m afraid you’ve done the opposite. When they return, you must tell them you couldn’t find any, that last time it took you many months of searching. We’ll stall for as long as we can that way. Perhaps they’ll tire of asking and give up.”
That night, I asked my mother to tell me again about my father, about our family back in their villages near Kanyakumari, a spit of land where three oceans met.
“One day, we’ll go back to the great Chola Empire,” she promised, “so you must remember who your people are. My name is Niraja. Your father’s name is Padmanabhan. His father is Lakshmichandran. His mother is Krishnapriya.” She had me learn all the names—my four grandparents, eight great grandparents, numerous uncles and aunts, all the cousins born before my parents left. She would tell me something special about each of them. How her father loved to sing. How her mother swam and bathed in the ocean.
“Your father taught you how to make bows and arrows,” she said, “when you were five years old. He showed you how to hunt for small animals and prepare the meat. Do you remember?”
I’m no longer sure whether my memories were true or whether hearing her stories impressed them into my mind, but I knew it would please her for me to say yes, so that’s what I did. My own recollections were blurred by the passage of time, more impressions than images—the warmth of my parents’ bodies on either side of mine as we lay in our wagon; the smoke from damp wood fires stinging my eyes; my father combing tangles from my mother’s long hair. We passed through many splendorous cities, crossed mountain passes, and drove along vast oceans, but it’s those quiet times at the end of the traveling day that have stayed with me. When the terror of flames threatens to overwhelm me, I take myself back to those moments of in between, the three of us safe and happy on our own, without a care for the rest of the world.
Walter and his small gang visited as promised. Taking my mother’s advice, I told them I had failed. They delivered a beating, which I accepted while curled into a ball on the ground beside my mother, my hands tucked into my armpits to protect the cloth wrapping. Some of them stood apart and watched. I gathered from their words that they had come mostly for sport, including Konrad stewards-son. Walter had debts to the elder Konrad. He’d allowed too many of his pigs to sicken, and he hadn’t given the vassal his due share of ham.
“Do better by next week.” Walter said as they left.
They came back again and again, and I gave the same excuse and earned us the same beating, but over time their numbers dwindled.
“We should leave this place,” I told my mother as we tended each other’s wounds. “I’m nearly a man now. We can travel again, buy a wagon and a horse once we get far enough from here.”
“You might be close to a man’s age, but you don’t yet have a man’s body. Your father faced worse men than Walter during our travels, and with your hands…you can’t fight them off.”
“I could turn Walter into gold and sink him to the bottom of the Salzach,” I grumbled.
“Don’t you dare!” My mother grabbed me by the chin and forced me to meet her gaze. “Never use your blessing to commit murder…or any other crime. You are better than that.”
I nodded, but there are days when I regret resisting that impulse.
The next afternoon, two days early, as the setting sun cast long shadows over the field, Walter stumbled into our hut alone and very drunk.
“I’ve had enough of you both,” he roared. He pointed a trembling finger at my mother. “This is all your doing, witch! You cursed my swine, I know it, and now you’ll pay.”
He wrapped one hand in her hair and yanked her off her feet. Without thinking, I launched myself at him.
“No,” my mother cried. “Ram, run away!”
But I didn’t heed her. Walter swatted away my pathetic attempts to strike him, then thrust a fist into my gut. I fell to the ground. As I gasped like a fish out of water, he stomped his booted foot once on my right arm, once on the left, and, over my mother’s screams, once on each leg.
“Be still,” he roared and flung her next to me.
He grabbed a piece of firewood and struck my mother’s head as I watched, helpless, unable to move or cry out. She slumped, unconscious, and began to bleed. Taking a flint, Walter dumped our entire supply of cooking tinder next to the straw hut’s walls and set it on fire. He waited until the flames caught well and smoke started to fill the small space.
As he ducked outside, he muttered, “Those who do the devil’s work must burn.”
I remember getting my wind back along with a lungful of smoke. I crawled to my mother and tried to grab her, to pull her out of our hut, which was now our pyre. I couldn’t work any of my limbs in a useful fashion. The sharp pain from my broken bones overwhelmed the sensation of searing heat, but the fear is what I can never forget. A terror not only of dying but of living with hands bare, that someone might find us only for me to turn them into gold. I rolled onto my stomach and tucked my useless hands under my body.
At some point, the smoke must have caused me to lose consciousness, because the next thing I recall is waking up and seeing stone walls and Ilse’s face looming over me. The terror returned full force, along with the sense over my entire body that the fire still blazed.
“Shhh,” Ilse whispered. “Don’t worry, I bandaged your hands again.”
Had she seen the gold undercloth? If there was anyone I could trust to keep it a secret, it was Ilsebill. With that reassuring thought, I fell into a restless sleep for many days, tormented by heat and pain. Flames danced behind my eyelids.
My mother perished in the fire. I didn’t know it for a long time, my mind too consumed by my injuries. Not only did I have multiple broken bones, but the skin over much of my body had burned. It took weeks to heal. My legs and feet, which had been closer to the hut walls, developed blisters. My mother had told me of the hospitals in our home kingdom, places where the ill or infirm could stay and be cared for. Bavaria had no such thing. I was left in the back of the church for God to look after me.
Ilsebill came to see me almost daily. I don’t know how much her ministrations helped, but her presence certainly saved me from dying of a broken heart. She told me how she and other villagers had noticed the smoke from the direction of our hut. The column was large enough that they assumed the field had caught fire and rushed over. When they discovered the truth, they doused the flames and dug us from the ruins. Somehow, I lived, and since I had rolled over my hands, they remained bandaged.
My skin repaired itself faster than my bones, but those eventually knit themselves, too. The priest and Ilse had splinted my limbs as best they could. All four ended up somewhat misaligned. I could use my arms and legs, but they pained me. Ilsebill stopped visiting once I could walk.
“My father won’t allow it,” she said at her last visit. “If you need me, hide in the trees near our home and whistle like a snow finch. I’ll meet you at our climbing spot.”
I didn’t know what qualified as need, and I lacked both the strength and the courage to test her offer.
At first I could only cross my room, but eventually I made it to the field where they buried unbaptized children. There I found my mother’s remains. Even in death, Bavaria had disrespected her, and I, once again, had been powerless to stop it.
I spent many a warm summer night curled up on the dirt with my mother rather than in my cot. The priest’s eyes were always kind when I returned at dawn. And one day, as the wind blew chill from the mountaintops, I found that I had cried all of my tears, and my pains, both inside and out, had dulled to the constant companionship of aches.
The next day, I walked to the edge of the village. I rested for a time, then continued further until I reached the heap of ash and char that marked our former hut. I waded through it and searched for something, any small remembrance of the two people in the world who had loved me most. My foot bumped against a solid object. I knelt and swept aside the debris, my motions gaining speed as I realized it was the bronze chest. My hands trembled from excitement and fatigue as I opened it. The wood carvings in the main chamber had charred but were intact. I felt below them for the mechanism that released the hidden section. There I discovered our silks, cloth of gold, and the carved fox, my father’s tooth mark imprinting its tail.
With the last of my strength, I heaved the box from the wreckage and dragged it into the woods. Luck had saved it from discovery by the villagers, but I didn’t dare rely on that. I hid the trunk in some undergrowth near our climbing trees. No one had disturbed us there, and I trusted Ilsebill not to say anything if she happened to spot it.
I spent that night in the woods, cradled in the elbow of my beech tree. When I returned to the church, the priest didn’t comment on my absence or the filthy state of my clothing. He had allowed me to use some rags to wrap my hands. When I mentioned their diseased state, he murmured the word leprosia, and I filed that away in my lexicon for future use.
Every night, by my mother’s grave, I repeated the words of my curse, the names and habits of my family members, and the cities that would lead me back to my true home. I conversed softly in Tamil with her about my day so that I wouldn’t forget my first language. I said prayers to my gods. I vowed that once I was well enough, I would leave Talgove and find my way to Kanyakumari, to the point where three oceans met.
The priest asked me to help around the church as remuneration for my extended stay. Dependent as I was on his charity, I did as he asked. For a few hours, I would do various chores and errands. When the pain overwhelmed me, I would lie on my cot. After several months, another villager displaced me, one whose infirmity needed the comfort more. The cold stone floors didn’t help my aching body, but I had nowhere else to go.
That year’s winter came after a poor harvest, and the storehouses for the church grew bare as the needs of the village increased. As soon as the roads became passable, the priest put me on a wagon to Salzburg. I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye to Ilsebill.
The wagon left me at the abbey, where the monks took pity on me. I stayed with them as long as I could tolerate it, but they wanted me to pray to their God, to accept the Bible as my holy book, and I could not betray my parents that way. When I declared my intention to go, the monks gave me a sack of food and let me keep my bedroll. With these on my back, I left the city for the woods. I planned to “discover” gold that I could trade for passage on a ship, but I had to think of a safe way to do it.
Nearly a year had passed while I was at the abbey. I hadn’t seen Ilsebill once the entire time. In spite of my deformities, I could walk at a good pace and distance—the power of a youthful body to adapt—and I found myself going further east each day, toward Talgove. I needed to retrieve the bronze trunk I’d hidden away. I couldn’t leave Bavaria without it, and once I’d approached the familiar terrain around the village, the urge to see Ilsebill burned within me like the flames that had destroyed my life.
The time away had made me shy. I had spent days sleeping in the woods, failing to wash or launder along the way. I stood in the trees across the creek from the mill and watched the waterwheel spin until I spied her form outside. Ilse had grown more womanly during my time away, though her figure wasn’t curvaceous like her sister’s. Should I approach her? Could I consider her a friend anymore, with so much time having passed and both of us having grown? I teetered on the cusp of adolescence, past the poorly formed notions of a child, and glimpsed the responsibility that weighs on a man’s shoulders. In that moment, I wished I could turn back time and freeze ourselves in youth, at the age when we had no troubles but to reach the next branch.
Perhaps I gasped or made some other involuntary noise because she turned and looked directly at me. I froze when our eyes met. The urge to flee warred with the need for acknowledgement. When Ilse’s face broke into a smile, I could draw breath again. She waved. My heart sang. I whistled like a snow finch and pointed in the direction of our secret spot before retreating. I trusted that she would find me when she could.
I waited in the crook of my beech tree for the better part of two days. Ilse arrived just after a rain shower. Drops spilled from the canopy above us, and mud caked her boots. She wore a plain leather cloak, the oiled hood pulled up to cover her head. I jumped down and stood in the awkward silence of a fourteen-year-old boy.
“Padmanabhan Rampalalakshmicharan,” Ilse said with a grin. “It’s wonderful to see you.”
She stepped forward and flung her arms about me. I was so startled, I stumbled back, but the tree trunk held me up. I dared to embrace her. I trembled at holding her warm, sturdy body against mine. She pulled away and led me by the hand to the boulders where we usually sat when we weren’t climbing.
“How have you been? Tell me everything,” she demanded.
I delighted her with stories about the different monks in the abbey, about learning to read and write on the sly, about the boats that came and went along the Salzach, about my plan to buy my way back to my home country.
Concern wrinkled her brow. “You don’t have to leave,” she said. “You could stay here in Talgove and swear fealty to Konrad. You could teach me to read and write.”
I held up my hands, the bandages filthy with mud and splinters. “I can’t stay here. I can’t stay anywhere for too long, or I’ll be in danger again.”
“You won’t. Walter died last winter. You’ll be safe.”
The way Ilse looked at me then, I couldn’t lie, not anymore. No one alive knew my secret, and I wanted someone to have the truth in case I died. Who better than my only friend? Ilse had saved my life, as Herlinde had done, and the least I could do was trust her with this knowledge.
“My hands…they’re not diseased.”
“What do you mean?”
I began to unwrap my left hand. Her aspect overflowed with questions. She raised her brows at the cloth of gold but stayed silent as I exposed my skin. With my right hand, I grabbed the smallest, thinnest twig I could spy and touched it with my left thumb and forefinger. Ilse’s sharp gasp made my heart skip a beat. Would this change things between us? Had I ruined our friendship?
“Is that…gold?” she whispered.
“Yes.” I wound both bandages over my hand and told her the story as my mother had told it to me. When I came to the rishi’s curse, I recited the exact words: “If Rampalalakshmicharan turns an object into gold for another person, they must give him whatever he demands in return. If they don’t, the golden object will turn to ash and he will lose his ability forever.”
Ilse’s brown eyes went round as saucers. “But this is wonderful! Why keep it a secret?”
“Because someone might threaten me or my family and force me to make gold for them, like Walter did. When I was small, my parents let me use my gift for some of their wares, but we never stayed in one place for long because they feared for my safety. After my father died, my mother was too afraid to continue our traveling ways. That’s why we stayed here in Talgove. It was a mistake.” I forced out the words I knew to be true: “Had we moved on, she would be alive today.”
“Oh, Ram, no! What happened was not your fault. It’s all that evil Walter’s doing. I’m sure he’s burning for his sins.”
My bitterness was still too fresh for me to accept her statement. “That’s why I can’t stay here—or anywhere. It’s too dangerous.”
“Will it be safe for you to travel alone? You’re small enough that people will think you’re a child. Wait a few years, until you grow into a man. I’ll help you in the meantime. I’ll leave you a small sack of food here every fortnight. I keep track of our stores now. Father won’t know if something is missing.”
She gazed at me with such earnestness that it confused my thoughts. There was sense in Ilse’s arguments, and staying was an easier choice than leaving, so I acquiesced.
Ilse beamed. “Listen, between here and Salzburg there are caves with veins of gold, right? We’ve all heard the rumors. Maybe you can make a vein and pretend to find it. Lead someone there who can mine it. You can avoid the Walter problem that way.”
“It’s a good idea,” I said. “But you must promise me: you’ll meet me here every fortnight with some food even if I can make this cave scheme work.”
“I will, if you swear to stay for at least two more years.”
We shook on the bargain. I watched her go with reluctance, then stowed the twig in my trunk and went to find a dry place for the night.
Over the next months, I familiarized myself with the local terrain. The triangular region formed by Salzburg, Hallein, and Talgove contained plenty of small cave systems. I ranged as far south as Hoven, where people mined for salt and copper. The climbing, scrambling, and swimming strengthened my limbs. My small stature allowed me to wiggle through tight spaces the Bavarians couldn’t reach. It made my deception easier.
I discovered that if I touched a layer of rock that was different from those around it, only it would turn into gold. Then, with my bandaged hands, I’d chip away at a small amount, take it back to Salzburg or Hallein, whichever was closer, and lead an expedition to the location of the vein that I’d “discovered.” When I found a cave at the mouth of a stream, I would go the gravel route, taking some of my made nuggets with me and leaving the rest for others to gather, as Walter had wanted. Sometimes I came upon salt or copper deposits, which were equally valuable to the local trade, and I wouldn’t have to use my magic at all.
To stay safe near the different towns, I established a set of caves where I kept stashes of firewood and blankets. I would share my space with the wildlife if they were peaceable, or chase them away if they became aggressive. I developed relationships with the local bishops and lords who owned the lands in the region. Merchants and villagers came to know me, as well, because I would stop for food, shelter, or directions to known cave systems nearby. They nicknamed me the Golden Spider for my ability to get into difficult spots and find this precious metal—and also because they could never remember my full name.
One year, I learned about a place high in the mountains above a tiny village about twenty miles south of Hallein. The locals said it was a gateway to Hell, which piqued my curiosity. The climb to the cave mouth was steep and treacherous, and the initial blast of air that greeted me was frigid. No heat or sulfur greeted me. Instead, I discovered a world of ice. I didn’t dare to explore very far, between the slippery surfaces and the wintery temperature, but the small amount I glimpsed was glorious and like nothing else I’d seen.
There, I set up a shrine to the gods of my people, to my patron, Goddess Lakshmi, and her consort Vishnu. I fashioned crude carvings from wood, hoping they would forgive my clumsiness, and turned them gold to preserve them from the elements. I went there to pray as often as I could, in thanks for saving my life, for giving me the gift of my hands, and for safe passage home one day. The cave allowed me to speak more privately to my mother and father than the grave in Talgove. Since no local would venture inside, it became my favorite sanctuary.
Once every fortnight, without fail, I returned to the climbing trees near Talgove. At first I needed the food, but as months and then years passed, I needed to see Ilse. People might enjoy the fruits of the Golden Spider’s labor, but none of them wanted my company. They might wonder at my absence if I died in a caving accident. Only she would miss me.
I didn’t realize that I was in love with Ilse until the day she told me her father had promised her in marriage to Konrad stewards-son. It happened on the day of the autumn festival, one that was unusually warm for the season. Ilse wore a new gown dyed buttery yellow with an embroidered veil over her hair. She’d come to see me as soon as the feasting had ended and the men began to drink. The setting sun filled the woods with a gentle glow that limned her form like a figure from an illuminated manuscript.
“I’m sixteen years old, and Father thinks it’s time,” she said. Her lips trembled as she drew a breath. “Ram—Padmanabhan Rampalalakshmicharan—marry me! Make lots of gold and offer it as a dowry. No one will question you this time. Please—I don’t want to be Konrad’s wife.”
I had given my heart to Ilse when we were still children. I just hadn’t realized it until she said the words: marry me. Now she was betrothed to a young man who’d once helped beat my mother and me.
In my mind’s eye, flames ate at a straw hut. I couldn’t see a future for us that didn’t end in disaster, pain, or both.
I grasped at excuses to cover my cowardice. “Your father would never agree to it, no matter how much gold I might offer. Look at me! I barely come up to your shoulder. My limbs may be strong, but they are still crooked. I spend my days crawling through caves. Besides, no priest would marry us.”
“Then convert! Embrace the church. You’ve lived here for most of your life. You don’t need your old gods anymore. If not for yourself, then do it for me.”
But it was my people’s goddess who had blessed me. My people’s gods who had brought me through blood and fire and kept me alive. They were my last connection to my family. I could no sooner let them go than I could cut my hands off, not even for Ilse.
I shook my head. “My life is one of ashes and stone. As long as I’m blessed with Goddess Lakshmi’s gift, I won’t be safe here, and neither will you. You’ll have a better life with Konrad in the big house—a far more comfortable living than you would roaming around with me.”
“Then let it go,” she said softly.
“Your gift. You know how to break free of it. Make me a gold item and ask for something impossible in return. Live the rest of your life by my side as an ordinary man.”
Fear gripped me, so tight I couldn’t breathe. Who was I without my golden touch? Worse than the worthless creature I already was! “You would take away the only good thing in my life?”
“Am I not a good thing? Would it be so terrible to have hands like the rest of us, like me?”
Yes it would, I thought, though I couldn’t say the words aloud. My touch had been part of my existence for as long as I could remember, my only worthwhile skill, my unique talent. I couldn’t fathom a life without it. How could Ilsebill not see that?
I turned my back to her. “Go marry Konrad and be well.”
“You’re being a coward.”
I closed my eyes.
“If I marry him, I won’t come back here to meet you, not ever again.”
I heard the rustle of her footsteps as she walked away. My heart ached worse than four shattered bones. I vowed never to return to Talgove.
That winter was the coldest I’d ever experienced. After a brutally hot and brief fall, the season shifted with a vengeance. I had barely enough opportunity to get my caves stocked with wood and fill my pack with dried foods, much less to consider my escape from Bavaria. The upper inches of the Salzach river froze. The roads became impassable with mud and ice. I spent many days huddled under my cloak and blankets, convinced that I had made the right decision about Ilsebill’s union with Konrad. She would be safe and warm in her stone house.
Winters were always a lean time for me. Mining operations slowed. People didn’t want to risk the treacherous terrain to see what I’d found, so I stopped trying. I didn’t have enough wealth to stay in Salzburg, and I had too much fear to trust any village in the area. I considered begging for a place at the abbey, but the monks had warned me before that I would have to convert if I came back. I did not think they’d go back on their word.
With the spring thaw, I decided to break my earlier promise to myself: I’d visit Talgove one more time, to ensure that Ilsebill was happy, and then I’d leave as soon as the roads were passable. I’d head east and south and never look back.
I crept into the village like a thief in the night. I couldn’t face my friend—if I could call her that any longer—so I climbed a tree near her house and waited for daylight and a glimpse of her fortunes.
She came outside to hang the wash. Her hair hung free and wet down her back like a dark cape. Her face looked drawn—thinner perhaps—and shadows had formed below her eyes. Had she been sick? A cold winter would do that. Good that she had the food and shelter to live through it. If she’d taken ill in the caves with me, she probably would have died.
As her arms lifted, her sleeves fell back. In the morning sun, the bruises stood out clearly against her pale skin: the marks of hard fingers. I looked more closely at her face then and realized that some of the shadows were not tricks of the light.
A man has a right to beat his wife in Bavaria, and plenty of them did. My father never raised a hand to my mother—not that I could remember—and I, of course, had been taught to protect my hands, not use them as weapons.
It took every ounce of willpower not to jump out of my tree and go to her. I didn’t need to ask if she was happy to know the answer. At least she lived. Was she well enough that I could leave? Some men beat their wives to death. What could I do to defend her? Could I blunt Konrad’s violence with gold?
Over the next weeks, I tried to glean some answers from the villagers. Was the vassal in debt to the duke of Bavaria? Was the younger Konrad ambitious and therefore unhappy with his status? Did he want something he didn’t have?
A child. That’s what he desired that Ilse couldn’t give him. They’d been married for half a year, and she hadn’t gotten pregnant even once. It shamed him that he wouldn’t have an heir—or worst case, a daughter—by their first anniversary.
No amount of gold could help me solve this problem, could it? Was it possible to obtain a newborn infant and leave it at their doorstep? Would Konrad take it in? Ilsebill would, of that I was certain, given her good heart. But where and how would I get such an infant? I couldn’t stomach the thought of buying one.
Neither could I tear myself away from Ilsebill’s unhappiness. Had I caused it by refusing to marry her? Should I murder Konrad in his sleep? I was fairly sure I could sneak into his chamber at night, but far less sure that I could actually do the deed. My mother’s words came back to me: Never use your blessing to commit murder. You are better than that.
I was hidden in a tree near the mill when the Duke of Bavaria arrived in Talgove. I had never seen the man before, but the coat of arms matched the hangings I’d seen in Salzburg. The sizeable retinue stopped by the water wheel.
Blasius emerged from the building, staggering and red-faced from drink. “My lord,” the miller said, his face wrinkled in confusion, “the steward’s house and the inn are—”
“I’m here for Trudy of-the-mill,” the duke interrupted. “Your daughter, I presume?”
Balsius’s befuddlement deepened. “Yes, but—”
“I hear that she can spin flax into gold, that she has a special instrument from a witch who used to live in these parts. I wish to witness this skill for myself.” The duke grinned.
The miller executed a deep, sloppy bow. “My lord, indeed she is indeed talented spinner and weaver. Beautiful, too.”
“Then let us see this lovely and gifted creature.”
Still bent at the waist, Blasius went inside. I held myself as still as wood and waited. What was he up to? Trudy had never learned how to make gold thread from my mother, and she certainly couldn’t magically transform flax. I could. Had someone discovered my gift and mixed up their stories?
A sharp cry sounded from inside the building. Blasius emerged, holding Trudy’s wrist in one hand and one of my mother’s spindles in another.
“See here!” He thrust Trudy forward and gestured at her head. “She made the golden thread for this embroidery. This ring, and the chain about her neck, too. Those used to be silver. She learned from a witch who used to live near our village. Take her! She will do well in your household.”
My stomach twisted with rage and disgust. Trudy’s wimple came from one of my mother’s fabrics. She wore my mother’s wedding band and necklace. How had they obtained the jewelry except from my mother’s body? How dare Blasius abuse my mother’s memory like that? And why would he lie about it? He’s desperate to see her married well. With Ilsebill secured to Konrad, there was no good match in the village for Trudy. Her looks—the golden hair, the womanly curves—had always attracted attention from men.
A flush covered Trudy’s round cheeks. She kept her gaze fixed on the ground, and her hands trembled. I sat in my tree, frozen with indecision and fear. I could think of nothing in my power that would help her without revealing my secret.
“Quite attractive,” the duke murmured. Then, louder, “I will take her to Salzburg with me. I wish to have some gold thread made for my wardrobe. If she succeeds in her witchcraft, I will take this young lady to Regensburg and keep her safely with my treasury.”
The men in the duke’s retinue snickered. Trudy’s flush crept down and across her neck.
“Yes, good,” Blasius said. He bobbed his head and swayed.
“And if she fails, she will be burned.”
At that, Blasius fell to his knees, his face pale. “But, my lord—”
“I am your duke, and you will not deny me again or else you will hang for the crime of consorting with witches.”
Trudy put a hand on her father’s shoulder. To my surprise, she kept her chin level and her face calm as the duke took her up and placed her on his horse. Blasius stayed on his knees in the dust. As the retinue rode away, Ilsebill came running down the lane, Konrad stewards-son a few strides behind her. They stopped by Blasius’s side and stared at the receding horses.
“What happened?” Konrad demanded.
As the miller related a semi-coherent version of Trudy’s fate and his impossible claim about her, Ilse raised her eyes and stared straight at my perch. She inclined her head ever so slightly toward our old meeting spot. She couldn’t possibly have seen me, could she? But her head had turned so precisely in my direction, and that tilt…she must have caught me out. When? How often had she noticed me skulking around the village?
My ears turned hot. To think that Ilsebill had known I was spying on her, that I was aware of her misery and yet did nothing—I couldn’t pretend after that. For surety, I shaped my lips and tongue and whistled like a snow finch.
That evening, the spring moon rose full and clear. It illuminated Ilsebill’s skin with a pale glow as she approached our intertwined trees. I dropped from my usual perch to the clearing and met her gaze. For several breaths, neither of us spoke. Up close, I could see more clearly what suffering had done to her, the way her cheeks carved into her face, the sloppiness of the stitching along her sleeve, the shadows under her eyes. I wanted to lift her to the highest branches and fly away somewhere safe and warm.
“Will you help her?” Ilse said in a volume barely above the call of night birds and insects. “You can save Trudy. If you run, you can get to Salzburg before the night is over. Turn the duke into gold. Give my sister enough to get passage down the river. She may be spoiled, but better a woman of ill-repute than dead.”
I wasn’t so sure of that assessment, but I found myself nodding. Anything to make Ilse’s life a little easier. “I’ll go. I’ll do…something, but I have no desire to kill anyone, especially a duke.”
Ilse’s expression took on a grim hardness I’d never seen. “You would if you understood what it’s like when a man…well, you’ll never have to know, will you?”
But I understood exactly what she meant by that pause, and the implication about her relations with Konrad. My wrapped hands balled into fists. Perhaps I could kill the duke, if I thought of him as Konrad and Trudy as my dear Ilse.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. About so many things.
She bowed her head and left me. No gifts this time, nothing to help me on my way, not even a word of thanks. Perhaps she thought I didn’t deserve the latter until after I’d saved her sister. Perhaps she was right.
I arrived in Salzburg a couple hours before matins. It took little effort to find Trudy’s whereabouts thanks to the torchlight seeping from the cracks of her room’s walls. Getting inside was more of a challenge, but stone is stone, whether it’s shaped by human hands or nature’s. I climbed up and squirmed my way through the gaps under the timber roof.
Trudy gave a startled gasp when I dropped into her room. “You! You’re Rum—Rumpel…you’re Niraja’s boy. What are you doing here?”
You have to help her, I told myself sternly, even if she can hardly recall your name.
I sketched a low bow. “I’m here to help, at the behest of your dear sister.”
When I straightened, I noticed the piles of flax around the room. One of my mother’s spindles—traded to Herlinde in our first year at Talgove—rested on a table. I waved at them and raised a questioning brow.
Trudy sat back onto a stool and burst into tears. “The duke—he said that he’s a man of his word, so he—he locked me in here and said that if I can spin this flax into thread as golden as my hair, he—he’ll let me live. I have no gold to work with, and even if I did, I wouldn’t know what to do.”
I didn’t ask if he had already taken her maidenhood. What difference would it make? At least he’d given her a way to stay alive. I wouldn’t have to kill him that night.
“Very well, you spin the flax. I’ll transform it into gold.”
Trudy gaped for a second. “You can really do that? I thought my father was telling drunken tales about Niraja.”
“He was, but he happened to guess right.” I didn’t bother to enlighten her about my mother or the truth of my gift. My gaze fell upon her finger. “You must give me your ring in return.”
“And promise never to tell anyone what I can do.”
As Trudy set to work, I unwound the cloths from my right hand. She handled the spindle with the same deftness that my mother had, and soon, piles of thread coiled on the floor. I passed my fingers through them. It wasn’t perfect, but enough turned gold that the duke wouldn’t notice the spots I’d missed.
Trudy didn’t have the sharp curiosity and courage of her sister, but she was no fool. She saw what I did, and understanding grew in eyes. I hoped she stayed true to her word and didn’t give me away.
As dawn’s light seeped through the cracks in the walls, we finished.
Trudy clutched my arm. Her eyes were red from the long night with no food or water.
“Thank you,” she rasped.
Thank your sister, I wanted to say. Instead, I nodded and slipped away.
I found a place to curl up and sleep in Salzburg. The next day, as I was taking a meal, I overheard people gossiping about the duke and his golden lady, and the miracle she’d worked overnight. That it was now a miracle and not witchcraft did not surprise me. Rumor said that he would ask her to repeat her holy transformation again.
I skulked around the city until nightfall, then made my way to the manor and Trudy’s room. This time, she had a window. Through it, I observed her sitting by the spindle with an even larger pile of flax mounded on the floor.
Her face lit with relief upon seeing me. “Thank the Almighty! I made the duke believe that I could only work my miracle alone and at night.”
“And only with flax?”
“He hasn’t asked about other types of thread.” She frowned. “Is that a problem?”
“No.” I loosed the binding on my right hand. “I’ll need something of yours in exchange again.”
She reached behind her head and unclasped my mother’s necklace. “This?”
I nodded. “That belonged to my mother, as did your ring.”
She had the decency to blush. “I’m sorry. My father made me wear them. He’s had them ever since…the fire.”
You’re doing this for Ilsebill, I reminded myself, not for her father.
We set to work and discovered that both of us could go faster after all the practice from the previous night. In spite of the larger amount, we finished earlier.
“Will you come back tomorrow?” Trudy asked.
Wearily, I nodded. “If I must, I’ll help you again, but we cannot allow the duke to exploit you like this forever. If he demands more, tell him that tomorrow is the last time you can do this, that God spoke to you and told him to be satisfied henceforth.”
Her eyes wide, Trudy agreed. I didn’t envy her position, having to lie to the duke and convince him of her limits.
I spent the next day thinking up ways I could spirit Trudy from the house. My golden touch wouldn’t help except to bribe the guards, but I wasn’t sure they’d accept coins from the likes of me. If anything, my possession of that kind of wealth might arouse suspicion. The window into the room was too small for Trudy to fit through. If I brought some chisels with me, perhaps we could loosen some stones in the wall and get her out that way. I wasn’t sure if we could work quickly or quietly enough for that, but it was the best I could come up with.
As I was about to barter for the tools, I overheard a new rumor: the duke had declared that tonight Trudy would perform her third and final miracle, and in the morning, the archbishop of Salzburg would witness their marriage before the couple departed for Regensburg. I abandoned the chisels. We already knew that the duke was a man of his word. I wouldn’t need to help Trudy escape.
I slipped into her room as early as I dared, for that night, the mounds of flax were enormous.
“Did he gather every bit he could find in all of Bavaria?” I groused.
Trudy glowed with happiness. “I don’t know, and I don’t care. A duchess! Just imagine it—me, a miller’s second daughter from Talgove.”
I frowned at her.
“What’s the matter?”
“I need you to give me something in exchange.”
She huffed impatiently. “I have nothing left but my gown, and you can’t have that. Wait until tomorrow. After I become duchess, I can give you anything you want.”
Would it work? I had never used my gift in trade for a promised item. If that failed, not only would Trudy lose her chance at marriage with the duke, I would no longer have my golden touch. I cursed myself for not buying the chisels when I could.
I didn’t want to risk my hands for Trudy, but Ilsebill’s quiet desperation rang in my mind. She had enough pain in her life. She didn’t need her sister’s death added to it. For the sake of her future, I decided to gamble with my own.
And that’s when the idea came to me.
“I want your first child with the duke,” I said.
“He’ll marry you tomorrow, and he’ll waste no time getting you with child. After the infant is baptized, I will collect it.” I will leave it at your sister’s doorstep, and perhaps then her miserable husband will stop tormenting her.
I had to hope that Trudy wasn’t as barren as her sister. It was my fault that Ilsebill suffered from Konrad’s abuse. Trading my hands—my gift—for her happiness seemed a fair exchange.
Trudy hesitated long enough that I thought she might refuse, but in the end, she agreed.
By the time we finished, both of our hands were raw from the work. The flax remained as golden as the other nights when I left it with Trudy.
I emerged from the building and made my way to the cave where I usually slept. The faint glow of pre-dawn painted the eastern sky with indigo. To be absolutely certain I hadn’t cursed myself, I touched a small pebble with my bare finger. It turned gold. I exhaled the breath I’d held. I wanted a good life for Ilsebill, but I couldn’t help the cowardly fear for my own fate had the worst come to pass. I tucked the precious stone into my pocket and fell into an exhausted slumber.
The next day, true to his word, the duke married Trudy. As the abbey bells pealed to announce the joyous occasion, I ran away from Salzburg. How long before Trudy spilled my secret to her noble husband? I could no longer consider Bavaria a safe place to stay. My unthinking feet carried me toward Talgove and Ilsebill and the travel chest that held my only valuable possessions.
I waited in my usual perch where I could see Ilse come out to hang laundry. When she came out of the house, I whistled like a snow finch. She turned toward me and nodded. I slipped away through the treetops and went to our meeting place. While I waited for her, I retrieved my chest and opened the false bottom. The clever device had preserved the family silks, my golden fox, and the last of my mother’s woven cloth-of-gold. I’d stowed them all in my pack. If I’d been inclined to take the roads, I would’ve worried about bandits, but I was used to finding game trails and dry stream beds to make my way through the wilderness.
A little while after sunset, I heard rustling footsteps, and Ilsebill arrived at the clearing. The moon gave us only a sliver of light, but that was enough for me to see the worry and hope that mixed on her face.
“You have a duchess for a sister,” I said.
Ilse blinked. “I—what do you mean? What happened?”
I told her almost everything. She worried when I divulged that Trudy now knew the secret of my hands. She understood when I told her I asked for Trudy’s jewelry in exchange. She wept when I told her about the wedding bells.
I didn’t mention how many items of jewelry, nor the dangerous bargain I’d made. Ilsebill wouldn’t accept her sister’s child, but she would take in an abandoned one. The deception—much as it pained me—was necessary.
I dared to close the distance between us and took her hands in mine. “I can’t stay in Bavaria. If the duke learns the truth from Trudy, he’ll have his men looking for me.”
This time, she didn’t protest. “Farewell, Padmanabhan Rampalalakshmicharan.”
“Farewell, Ilsebill stewards-wife.” I lifted her fingers to my lips, pressed hard, then let her go.
I left Bavaria for half a year. In that time, I traveled east and did my best to trace a portion of the route that would take me home. I allowed myself to acquire simple jewelry and turn it gold so that I could pay my way. I also trimmed and curled my hair, shaved my face, and traded my clothes for the colorful robes of a Roman merchant—someone well-off but not wealthy enough to attract attention. Leather gloves covered my cloth-bound hands. Like my childhood days, I never stayed anywhere long enough for people to know me.
The most dangerous time came when I went to Regensburg. I had to know if Trudy was with child. As the seat of the duchy of Bavaria, the city had plenty of spying eyes. It wasn’t as big or busy as Salzburg, which made keeping my anonymity more challenging. Luckily, my new attire hid my crooked limbs, and my gold distracted people from my short stature. People see what they want, not what is.
I arrived by boat on a rainy day in autumn and stayed for three days and three nights, spending as generously as I dared, until I could comfortably ask the innkeeper whether the duke had an heir. The duchess was with child, he informed me, expecting a birth in spring. She would take her confinement in Salzburg, closer to the archbishop who would christen the child. I thanked Goddess Parvathi that Trudy was more fertile than her sister.
I spent the worst part of winter in the gentler climates of the Roman Empire before making my way back to Salzburg. I didn’t dare stay in the city—someone might recognize the Golden Spider—so I kept to my old caves and trees and subsisted on dried meat and fruit. My stashes of wood sat where I’d left them, dry and perfect for keeping warm. I listened for the abbey bells to tell me whether the child had been christened.
At last, on an unusually warm and cloudy spring day, I heard them ring. The rain started as the procession left the church and headed back to the duke’s residence in Salzburg. I followed them from my vantage points in the trees, eventually running ahead to hide myself where I could see Trudy and the baby enter the house. Only a few rooms had windows, and the duchess would certainly end up in one of them.
When the shutters flew up on an upper part of the house, I figured that was my target. I waited until night fell. I was soaked and chilled, but I gritted my teeth and climbed. As before, I slipped through the gap between the walls and the roof, dropping into a spacious chamber. Embers glowed in the fireplace. In the dim light, I could see Trudy and her infant asleep on the bed. I shook her gently to wake her.
She sat up in alarm upon recognizing my face. “You! Rumpel—”
“Shhh,” I cautioned, pointing at the babe. In a whisper, I said, “I’ve come to collect what I’m owed.”
Confusion and then distress painted Trudy’s face. She whispered back, “Please, have mercy! He’s only a month old. I can’t part with him so soon.”
“It won’t get easier with time.”
“I didn’t know then what I do now. I can’t give him up. Ask me for something else—anything! Please! I’ll find a way to get it. The duke is so happy to have a son, he won’t deny me.” Her voice rose with her distress.
I didn’t know if I could make a trade like that, and if it failed, I’d be ruined. I didn’t have enough saved for passage all the way back to Kanyakumari.
“I must have him and nothing else,” I said. “There’s no other way. I’m sorry.” I didn’t owe her any apology, but her pain softened my heart. “If you don’t fulfill your side of the bargain, the golden thread we made on the third night will turn to ash.”
“I don’t care about the gold!” she cried. “I only want my child.”
“And I only want to go home,” I spat. “I saved your life. You became a duchess. Now I need your help, and instead you want to condemn me to a miserable life. I should have expected this. You can’t even say my name. Why would you think of my welfare?”
“Trudy?” said a sleepy voice from the floor beyond the bed.
We both froze as a head rose into view: Ilsebill. I’m not sure which of our expressions was more shocked, hers or mine.
“Ram?” Ilse said. She shook herself as if she might be dreaming.
Trudy glanced wildly back and forth between us. “Ilse, help me! He’s trying to take Eberhard away!”
“Hush, Trudy, or you’ll wake him.” Ilsebill stood and came around the bed. “What’s going on, Ram? Why are you here?”
I was at a loss to tell her anything but the truth, so I confessed the terrible bargain I’d struck a year earlier.
“Why would you do such a thing?” The aghast expression on Ilse’s face didn’t surprise me, but my heart sank anyway.
“For you,” I whispered. “So that Konrad would treat you better. I planned to leave the baby at your doorstep as a gift.”
Ilsebill drew a sharp breath. She closed her eyes for a breath. When she reopened them, I saw fury and despair.
“Ilse?” Trudy said plaintively from across the room.
“I said hush!” Ilsebill hissed.
“I have to take the baby,” I said desperately. “You know what will happen if I don’t. Ilse—please!”
“Of all the foolish things to do, Ram—you should’ve spoken to me first.”
“I couldn’t! I was busy saving Trudy’s life.” I raised my gloved hands, palms outward. “With these, the only skill I have. Would you take them from me?”
“You should never have made such a demand! A child isn’t something to be traded. And Konrad would never accept someone’s cast off infant as his own. Don’t you understand anything about him? You should have thought this through instead of acting like a foolish boy.”
Her anger mirrored my mother’s, all those years earlier, when I’d spoken up to Walter. Flames danced in my mind.
“You have no one to blame but yourself,” Ilse said. “And unlike my sister, I do know your name, and I’ll say it once more.” She raised a trembling arm and pointed at the window. “Padmanabhan Rampalalakshmicharan, you cannot complete this trade. Leave the infant and go!”
I was tempted to snatch the child and make my escape. If Ilse didn’t want him, I could leave him at some other doorstep. As if reading my mind, she stepped between me and the bed, her face as stony as the walls around us.
“Go,” she repeated, “or I will raise the alarm.”
“You would let the duke kill me?” I asked, the words bitter in my throat.
“I don’t want to. I would never want to hurt you. But I won’t let you take my nephew.”
We were at an impasse, one that I knew I couldn’t win. I wouldn’t strike Ilsebill or Trudy. That kind of violence wasn’t in me, not even to save my blessed, cursed hands. And Ilse, like the duke, kept her promises.
Without another word, I fled through the window, leaping to the ground as soon as I’d dared. The fall wrenched my leg, and I limped toward the the trees. Twice, I slipped on roots and fell to my knees. The second time, I didn’t get up. The earth was cold and muddy. Heavy mist turned the night air liquid, and a bone-deep ache saturated my limbs. I wanted to be sick. I wanted to scream. I wanted to tear myself into a thousand pieces and hurl them into the starry void.
Instead, I slipped off the glove on my left hand, unwrapped the index finger, and touched a leaf at my feet. Nothing. I tore off the linen and shed the cloth-of-gold. With a maniacal recklessness, I pressed my hand to the tree root. It remained as wood. I hurled the rags into the night and buried my face in my hands. What could I do? Betrayed by the only person in the world I loved, bereft of the only valuable skill in my life. I considered walking to the ice cave near Hallein and ending my life in front my gods. Nobody would notice or care.
Ilse loomed beside me, a lanky void in the fog. She knelt and took my bare hand in hers. I flinched, but she held it fast, and I felt the warmth of a human touch on my palm for the first time in my memory.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“You should be.”
She sighed. “Maybe it’s for the best. You’re free now. You can go anywhere, settle down, have a proper life.”
“And what would I do with that life? Become a Bavarian peasant? Turn into a good Christian man? I belong nowhere and own nothing. I’m short. My limbs are misshapen. Who would have me for a husband?”
A gust of wind swirled around us and a heavy raindrop landed on the back of my hand.
“I would,” she said. Ilse’s eyes were dark pools as she looked into mine.
“It’s too late for that now.” I pulled my hand away. “I know—that’s my fault, too.”
She sat back on her heels and lifted her chin in the same unyielding way she had since we were children. “Then make it right. Take me for your wife.”
It took a minute for the import of her words to sink in.
“You’d leave Konrad and live in sin with me?”
“Would your gods consider it sinful?”
“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. I knew only what my parents had taught me, and whether a woman can leave one man for another wasn’t something they’d discussed.
“I’ll pledge myself to your gods. I’ll go with you to your family and make a home there. If you could spend all these years in Bavaria, then I can do the same in Kanyakumari.”
“What about Trudy? Your father?”
“My sister is a duchess.” As she spoke, she took my other hand and pulled off the glove. She began to untie the cloth. “Trudy is young, but she’s not stupid. She’ll be all right. As for my father’s fate, it no longer concerns me.” She took both of my bare hands in hers. “Will you have me?”
I did not make the same mistake twice. “Yes.” Wind gusted through the trees and showered us with heavy drops. “We need to get to shelter.”
“Where should we go?”
“I’ve been staying in a cave in those hills. It’s not a comfortable place.”
She stood and pulled me up. “Lead the way.”
Our journey lasted two full years. The first stop was the cave in Hallein, where we pledged our lives to each other in front of my gods. We had no heavenly witnesses except the stars as we consummated our marriage. Then we headed east. We kept to wilderness trails, but Ilse wasn’t used to all the walking so we took our time. We stopped at villages to work for food and shelter.
After we left Bavaria, we dared to catch rides when it seemed safe, but we didn’t risk it often. When we left the places I knew, our progress slowed even further. The further east we traveled, the more people resembled me rather than Ilsebill. She never wavered in her resolve. One evening in Constantinople, she traded her old wedding ring for two wooden bands and asked me to place one upon her finger. Then she slipped the other over mine.
It took me weeks to get used to touching things with my bare hands, months before I could wake without panicking at my exposed skin. The joy of holding Ilse’s face in my palms helped to make up for it.
By the time we reached my father’s village, Ilsebill was round with child. Konrad had been the barren one, not her. We made the last part of our journey in haste so that she wouldn’t have to give birth among strangers as my mother had.
The burden of fear that had weighed down my shoulders for as long as I could remember finally lifted when I greeted my family. My grandparents still lived. They recognized my parents’ features in my own. They wept when I told them of my parents’ fates and smiled when I introduced my wife. They had seen the traders from far away lands at the port in Kanyakumari, and they found her strange but not unacceptable. She towered over us all by almost a handspan. Until then, I’d thought that my stature was due to my broken bones, but it turned out that my people are naturally smaller.
On a balmy morning, Ilsebill and I carried our daughter to the temple where three seas converged. We prayed to Devi Kanya Kumari for our child to have a good life, but we asked for no blessings. One length of gold cloth had traveled home in my pack. I laid it at the feet of the goddess and left it behind.
(Editors’ note: S.B. Divya is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2022 S.B. Divya