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By S. Jae-Jones
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 S. Jae-Jones
All rights reserved.
THE GOBLIN MARKET
We must not look at goblin men, We must not buy their fruits: Who knows upon what soil they fed Their hungry, thirsty roots?
— CHRISTINA ROSSETTI, Goblin Market
BEWARE THE GOBLIN MEN
"BEWARE THE GOBLIN MEN," Constanze said. "And the wares they sell."
I jumped when my grandmother's shadow swept across my notes, scattering my thoughts and foolscap along with it. I scrambled to cover my music, shame shaking my hands, but Constanze hadn't been addressing me. She stood perched on the threshold, scowling at my sister, Käthe, who primped and preened before the mirror in our bedroom — the only mirror in our entire inn.
"Listen well, Katharina." Constanze pointed a gnarled finger at my sister's reflection. "Vanity invites temptation, and is the sign of a weak will."
Käthe ignored her, pinching her cheeks and fluffing her curls. "Liesl," she said, reaching for a hat on the dressing table. "Could you come help me with this?"
I put my notes back into their little lockbox. "It's a market, Käthe, not a ball. We're just going to pick up Josef's bows from Herr Kassl's."
"Liesl," Käthe whined. "Please."
Constanze harrumphed and thumped the floor with her cane, but my sister and I paid her no heed. We were used to our grandmother's dour and direful pronouncements.
I sighed. "All right." I hid the lockbox beneath our bed and rose to help pin the hat to Käthe's hair.
The hat was a towering confection of silk and feathers, a ridiculous affectation, especially in our little provincial village. But my sister was also ridiculous, so she and the hat were well matched.
"Ouch!" Käthe said as I accidentally jabbed her with a hatpin. "Watch where you stick that thing."
"Learn to dress yourself, then." I smoothed down my sister's curls and settled her shawl so that it covered her bare shoulders. The waist of her gown was gathered high beneath her bosom, the simple lines of her dress showing every curve of her figure. It was, Käthe claimed, the latest fashion in Paris, but my sister seemed scandalously unclothed to my eyes.
"Tut." Käthe preened before her reflection. "You're just jealous."
I winced. Käthe was the beauty of our family, with sunshine hair, summer-blue eyes, apple-blossom cheeks, and a buxom figure. At seventeen, she already looked like a woman full-grown, with a small waist and generous hips that her new dress showed off to great advantage. I was nearly two years older but still looked like a child: small, thin, and sallow. The little hobgoblin, Papa called me. Fey, was Constanze's pronouncement. Only Josef ever called me beautiful. Not pretty, my brother would say. Beautiful.
"Yes, I'm jealous," I said. "Now are we going to the market or not?"
"In a bit." Käthe rummaged through her box of trinkets. "What do you think, Liesl?" she asked, holding up a few lengths of ribbon. "Red or blue?"
"Does it matter?"
She sighed. "I suppose not. None of the village boys will care anymore, now that I'm to be married." She glumly plucked at the trim on her gown. "Hans isn't the sort for fun or finery."
My lips tightened. "Hans is a good man."
"A good man, and boring," Käthe said. "Did you see him at the dance the other night? He never, not once, asked me to take a turn with him. He just stood in the corner and glared disapprovingly."
It was because Käthe had been flirting shamelessly with a handful of Austrian soldiers en route to Munich to oust the French. Pretty girl, they coaxed her in their funny Austrian accents, Come give us a kiss!
"A wanton woman is ripened fruit," Constanze intoned, "begging to be plucked by the Goblin King."
A frisson of unease ran up my spine. Our grandmother liked to scare us with tales of goblins and other creatures that lived in the woods beyond our village, but Käthe, Josef, and I hadn't taken her stories seriously since we were children. At eighteen, I was too old for my grandmother's fairy tales, yet I cherished the guilty thrill that ran through me whenever the Goblin King was mentioned. Despite everything, I still believed in the Goblin King. I still wanted to believe in the Goblin King.
"Oh, go squawk at someone else, you old crow," Käthe said. She pouted. "Why must you always be pecking at me?"
"Mark my words." Constanze glared at my sister from beneath layers of yellowed lace and faded ruffles, her dark brown eyes the only sharp things in her wizened face. "You watch yourself, Katharina, lest the goblins come take you for your licentious ways."
"Enough, Constanze," I said. "Leave Käthe alone and let us go on our way. We must be back before Master Antonius arrives."
"Yes, Heaven forbid we miss our precious little Josef's audition for the famous violin maestro," my sister muttered.
"I know, I know." She sighed. "Stop worrying, Liesl. He'll be fine. You're worse than a hen with a fox at the door."
"He won't be fine if he doesn't have any bows to play with." I turned to leave. "Come, or I'll be going without you."
"Wait." Käthe grabbed my hand. "Would you let me to do a little something with your hair? You have such gorgeous locks; it's a shame you plait them out of the way. I could —"
"A wren is still a wren, even in a peacock's feathers." I shook her off. "Don't waste your time. It's not like Hans — anyone — would notice anyway."
My sister flinched at the mention of her betrothed's name. "Fine," she said shortly, then strode past me without another word.
"Ka—" I began, but Constanze stopped me before I could follow.
"You take care of your sister, girlie," she warned. "You watch over her."
"Don't I always?" I snapped. It had always been up to me — me and Mother — to hold the family together. Mother looked after the inn that was our house and livelihood; I looked after the members who made it home.
"Do you?" My grandmother fixed her dark eyes on my face. "Josef isn't the only one who needs looking after, you know."
I frowned. "What do you mean?"
"You forget what day it is."
Sometimes it was easier to humor Constanze than to ignore her. I sighed. "What day is it?"
"The day the old year dies."
Another shiver up my spine. My grandmother still kept to the old laws and the old calendar, and this last night of autumn was when the old year died and the barrier between worlds was thin. When the denizens of the Underground walked the world above during the days of winter, before the year began again in the spring.
"The last night of the year," Constanze said. "Now the days of winter begin and the Goblin King rides abroad, searching for his bride."
I turned my face away. Once I would have remembered without any prompting. Once I would have joined my grandmother in pouring salt along every windowsill, every threshold, every entrance as a precaution against these wildling nights. Once, once, once. But I could no longer afford the luxury of my indulgent imaginings. It was time, as the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians, to put aside childish things.
"I don't have time for this." I pushed Constanze aside. "Let me pass."
Sorrow pushed the lines of my grandmother's face into even deeper grooves, sorrow and loneliness, her hunched shoulders bowing with the weight of her beliefs. She bore those beliefs alone now. None of us kept faith with Der Erlkönig anymore; none save Josef.
"Liesl!" Käthe shouted from downstairs. "Can I borrow your red cloak?"
"Mind how you choose, girl," Constanze told me. "Josef is not part of the game. When Der Erlkönig plays, he plays for keeps."
Her words stopped me short. "What are you talking about?" I asked. "What game?"
"You tell me." Constanze's expression was grave. "The wishes we make in the dark have consequences, and the Lord of Mischief will call their reckoning."
Her words prickled against my mind. I minded how Mother warned us of Constanze's aged and feeble wits, but my grandmother had never seemed more lucid or more earnest, and despite myself, a thread of fear began to wind about my throat.
"Is that a yes?" Käthe called. "Because I'm taking it if so!"
I groaned. "No, you may not!" I said, leaning over the stair rail. "I'll be right there, I promise!"
"Promises, eh?" Constanze cackled. "You make so many, but how many of them can you keep?"
"What —" I began, but when I turned to face her, my grandmother was gone.
* * *
Downstairs, Käthe had taken my red cloak off its peg, but I plucked it from her hands and settled it about my own shoulders. The last time Hans had brought us gifts from his father's fabric goods store — before his proposal to Käthe, before everything between us changed — he had given us a beautiful bolt of heavy wool. For the family, he said, but everyone had known the gift was for me. The bolt of wool was a deep, blood-red, perfectly suited to my darker coloring and warming to my sallow complexion. Mother and Constanze had made me a winter cloak from the cloth, and Käthe made no secret of how much she coveted it.
We passed our father playing dreamy old airs on his violin in the main hall. I looked around for our guests, but the room was empty, the hearth cold and the coals dead. Papa still wore his clothes from the night before, and the whiff of stale beer lingered about him like must.
"Where's Mother?" Käthe asked.
Mother was nowhere to be seen, which was probably why Papa felt bold enough to play out here in the main hall, where anyone might hear him. The violin was a sore point with our parents; money was tight, and Mother would rather Papa play his instrument for hire than pleasure. But perhaps Master Antonius's imminent arrival had loosened Mother's pursestrings as well as her heartstrings. The renowned virtuoso was to stop at our inn on his way from Vienna to Munich to audition my little brother.
"Likely taking a nap," I ventured. "We were up before dawn, scrubbing out the rooms for Master Antonius."
Our father was a violinist nonpareil, who had once played with the finest court musicians in Salzburg. It was in Salzburg, Papa would boast, where he had had the privilege of playing with Mozart on one of the late, great composer's concertos. Genius like that, Papa said, comes only once in a lifetime. Once in two lifetimes. But sometimes, he would continue, giving Josef a sly glance, lightning does strike twice.
Josef was not among the gathered guests. My little brother was shy of strangers, so he was likely hiding at the Goblin Grove, practicing until his fingers bled. My heart ached to join him, even as my fingertips twinged with sympathetic pain.
"Good, I won't be missed," Käthe said cheerfully. My sister often found any excuse to skip out on her chores. "Let's go."
Outside, the air was brisk. The day was uncommonly cold, even for late autumn. The light was sparse, weak and wavering, as though seen through curtains or a veil. A faint mist wrapped the trees along the path into town, wraithing their spindly branches into spectral limbs. The last night of the year. On a day like this, I could believe the barriers between worlds were thin indeed.
The path that led into town was pitted and rutted with carriage tracks and spotted with horse dung. Käthe and I took care to keep to the edges, where the short, dead grass helped prevent the damp from seeping into our boots.
"Ugh." Käthe stepped around another dung puddle. "I wish we could afford a carriage."
"If only our wishes had power," I said.
"Then I'd be the most powerful person in the world," Käthe remarked, "for I have wishes aplenty. I wish we were rich. I wish we could afford whatever we wanted. Just imagine, Liesl: what if, what if, what if."
I smiled. As little girls, Käthe and I were fond of What if games. While my sister's imagination did not encompass the uncanny, as mine and Josef's did, she had an extraordinary capacity for pretend nonetheless.
"What if, indeed?" I asked softly.
"Let's play," she said. "The Ideal Imaginary World. You first, Liesl."
"All right." I thought of Hans, then pushed him aside. "Josef would be a famous musician."
Käthe made a face. "It's always about Josef with you. Don't you have any dreams of your own?"
I did. They were locked up in a box, safe and sound beneath the bed we shared, never to be seen, never to be heard.
"Fine," I said. "You go, then, Käthe. Your Ideal Imaginary World."
She laughed, a bright, bell-like sound, the only musical thing about my sister. "I am a princess."
Käthe shot me a look. "I am a princess, and you are a queen. Happy now?" I waved her on.
"I am a princess," she continued. "Papa is the Prince-Bishop's Kapellmeister, and we all live in Salzburg."
Käthe and I had been born in Salzburg, when Papa was still a court musician and Mother a singer in a troupe, before poverty chased us to the backwoods of Bavaria.
"Mother is the toast of the city for her beauty and her voice, and Josef is Master Antonius's prize pupil."
"Studying in Salzburg?" I asked. "Not Vienna?"
"In Vienna, then," Käthe amended. "Oh yes, Vienna." Her blue eyes sparkled as she spun out her fantasy for us. "We would travel to visit him, of course. Perhaps we see him perform in the great cities of Paris, Mannheim, and Munich, maybe even London! We have a grand house in each city, trimmed with gold and marble and mahogany wood. We wear gowns made in the most luxurious silks and brocades, a different color for every day of the week. Invitations to the fanciest balls and parties and operas and plays flood our post every morning, and a bevy of swains storm the barricades for our favor. The greatest artists and musicians would consider us their intimate acquaintances, and we would dance and feast all night long on cake and pie and Schnitzel and —"
"Chocolate torte," I added. It was my favorite.
"Chocolate torte," Käthe agreed. "We would have the finest coaches and the handsomest horses and" — she squeaked as she slipped in a mud puddle — "never walk on foot through unpaved roads to market again."
I laughed, and helped her regain her footing. "Parties, balls, glittering society. Is that what princesses do? What of queens? What of me?"
"You?" Käthe fell silent for a moment. "No. Queens are destined for greatness."
"Greatness?" I mused. "A poor, plain little thing like me?"
"You have something much more enduring than beauty," she said severely.
"And what is that?"
"Grace," she said simply. "Grace, and talent."
I laughed. "So what is to be my destiny?"
She cut me a sidelong glance. "To be a composer of great renown."
A chill wind blew through me, freezing me to the marrow. It was as though my sister had reached into my breast and wrenched out my heart, still beating, with her fist. I had jotted down small snatches of melody here and there, scribbling little ditties instead of hymns into the corners of my Sunday chapbook, intending to gather them into sonatas and concertos, romances and symphonies someday. My hopes and dreams, so tattered and tender, had been sheltered by secrecy for so long I could not bear to bring them to light.
"Liesl?" Käthe tugged at my sleeve. "Liesl, are you all right?"
"How —" I said hoarsely. "How did you ..."
She squirmed. "I found your box of compositions beneath our bed one day. I swear I didn't mean any harm," she added quickly. "But I was looking for a button I'd dropped and ..." Her voice trailed off at the look upon my face.
My hands were shaking. How dare she? How dare she open my most private thoughts and expose them to her prying eyes?
"Liesl?" Käthe looked worried. "What's wrong?"
I did not answer. I could not answer, not when my sister would never understand just how she had trespassed against me. Käthe had not a modicum of musical ability, nearly a mortal sin in a family such as ours. I turned and marched down the path to market.
"What did I say?" My sister hurried to catch up with me. "I thought you'd be pleased. Now that Josef's going away, I thought Papa might — I mean, we all know you have just as much talent as —"
"Stop it." The words cracked in the autumn air, snapping beneath the coldness of my voice. "Stop it, Käthe."
Her cheeks reddened as though she had been slapped. "I don't understand you," she said.
"What don't you understand?"
"Why you hide behind Josef."
"What does Sepperl have to do with anything?"
Käthe narrowed her eyes. "For you? Everything. I bet you never kept your music secret from our little brother."
I paused. "He's different."
"Of course he's different." Käthe threw up her hands in exasperation. "Precious Josef, delicate Josef, talented Josef. He has music and madness and magic in his blood, something poor, ordinary, tone-deaf Katharina does not understand, could never understand."
I opened my mouth to protest, then shut it again. "Sepperl needs me," I said softly. It was true. Our brother was fragile, in more than just bones and blood.
"I need you," she said, and her voice was quiet. Hurt.
Constanze's words returned to me. Josef isn't the only one who needs looking after.
"You don't need me." I shook my head. "You have Hans now."
Excerpted from Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones. Copyright © 2017 S. Jae-Jones. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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