The Glass Castle

“Did you see that the lot next door is for sale?” Gwen asked, passing by with a basket of laundry.

I put my cereal spoon down.  “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“The sign went up today,” she said.

All my righteous indignation rose up. Let’s face it, it didn’t take much to make that happen, but this was a serious cause. “I knew that realtor was lying,” I called to Gwen, who was now pouring detergent into the washing machine. “That’s exactly the standard story they tell. ‘Yes, isn’t the green space wonderful? It will stay that way, too. Owned by an old man, you know, and he refuses to sell or let anyone build on it.’ Like that lie isn’t as worn out as an old shoe.”

“It convinced you,” said Gwen, passing back through with a pile of folded towels. 

She was right. That’s what made me so angry. Like most young hipsters, we had wanted to live in the city, to be a part of urban life and renewal, but I had also worried about raising our theoretical kids away from nature, surrounded by concrete and skyscrapers instead of grass and trees. This place had seemed like the answer to all of that.  The townhouse was old and full of history but it had been renovated to comfortable perfection. It was in an up and coming urban center but right next door was an empty lot full of grass and ringed by beautiful old trees. Of course I wanted to believe the realtor when she said it would never get built up. That didn’t make me any less angry now. 

Worse, we had now lived here long enough that the kids weren’t theoretical anymore. Gwen was expecting our first daughter in just three months. We had spent the whole winter preparing a nursery that looked out onto green branches blowing in the wind. I imagined my daughter now staring out onto an apartment complex or a blocky office building or a Baby Gap.

“I’m going to call the number and find out about it,” I said. 

“You’re only going to get all worked up about nothing,” Gwen answered.

“Well, maybe I’ll write an article about it or something. Get public opinion on our side and save the green space.”

Gwen came to stand in the kitchen doorway and looked at me with one eyebrow raised. I knew that look.

“People love that kind of stuff,” I said defensively.

“I know they do,” she said. “But didn’t you leave journalism because you were tired of having to muster up new causes for people with short attention spans? ‘Pandering to the public’s fickle imagination’ I believe were your exact words.”

“But this is a real cause, a worthy cause, not something manufactured to get people worked up enough to keep reading outdated media. And I always intended to keep writing. This could be my first freelance project.”

I had intended to keep writing. There was a time when I had loved writing. But I had left my job at the local news magazine for a more lucrative and less enfuriating project manager position six months ago, and I had yet to write a single paragraph in all that time.

Gwen’s smile was a little too understanding, but she had always claimed that my idealism was one of the things she loved about me, so she didn’t argue. Plus, I figured, in some part of her heart, she knew I was right. We couldn’t just do nothing.

I called the number on the For Sale sign. A man answered the phone.

“I’m calling to inquire about the empty lot for sale on Orchard Street,” I said.

“Are you interested in buying it?” He asked.

“Well, I’m very interested in it,” I hedged, “but first I just need to know the asking price and the zoning information. That kind of thing.”

“What do you want it for?” He asked.

It suddenly occurred to me that he hadn’t mentioned the name of the realty office when he answered the phone.

“Could I speak to the listing realtor for that property?” I said.

“There’s no realtor,” he answered.

“Who am I speaking with?” I asked.

“Who am I speaking with?” He retorted.

“I’m James Harroway,” I started again. “I actually live next door to the property in question, and I’m interested in finding out more about it.”

There was a long pause. “You live next door?” He asked.

Now I was starting to feel nervous. Wasn’t your address the kind of information you weren’t supposed to give out to strangers over the phone?

“Are you the one selling the property?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “Maybe. I own it. And I also live next door.”

For a second I had that creepy the-call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house feeling. Then I realized he must mean next door on the other side. I realized it had been a minute since anyone spoke. “Oh, um, great! So…we’re neighbors. And, um, now you’re selling the lot?”

“Let’s meet and do this face to face,” he said. “Outside in five minutes.”

“Oh,” I said, taken aback. I hadn’t really wanted to face anyone just yet. “Well, um, the thing is…”

“Do you live next door or not?” He asked.

“Um, yes…”

“Are you home right now or not?”

I considered lying, but it just wasn’t in me. “Yes, but…”

“If you want to know about the lot, meet me outside in five minutes,” he said and hung up before I could answer.

I was still feeling a little dizzy when Gwen walked in and grabbed a banana from the bowl on the table.

“What’s wrong with you?” She asked.

“I guess that number was for the owner,” I said. 

“Okay. How much is he asking? I bet it’s half a million, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know. He wants to meet me. He’s our neighbor.”

Gwen laughed. “Really? Are you going to do it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s going to be pretty awkward when I can’t actually buy the property. One look at me an he’s going to know I don’t have half a million dollars to invest.”

Gwen laughed again. “You should go! I mean, you’ll get to meet a neighbor if nothing else.”

“Want to come?” I asked, standing up.

“Right now?” She said.

“He said in five minutes.”

Gwen laughed again. “Oh no,” she said. “This is all you. But if he turns out to be the old man that the realtor described and not some kind of axe murderer, then you can invite him over for dinner.”

With that kind of overwhelming support behind me, I went down to the front stoop. An old man with brown courderoy pants and a professor-style jacket, complete with elbow patches, was standing on the sidewalk looking up at me as I came out the door.

“So you weren’t lying,” he said.

“I try not to do that,” I answered.

He just nodded. “Good,” he said and held out his hand as if he weren’t a stranger passing judgment on my whole character.

“I’m Jeremiah Cooper. Lived here on Orchard Street for seventy-four years, which means I moved in when I was six, in case you’re wondering.”

I took his hand. “James Harroway.  I’ve lived here for six months, which means I moved in when I was twenty-seven,” I answered.

Jeremiah Cooper smiled and didn’t let go of my hand. “That’s fine,” he said. “It’s good to be young while you can. Now tell me what your interest is in my property.”

It was really hard to be vague while gripping someone’s hand. I tried to pull my hand back, but he wasn’t having it. For an eighty-year old man, he had quite the grip. I gave up and told the whole truth. “The green space next door is why we bought this house. I was upset to see you were selling it. I hope it won’t get built up. I thought I’d ask the price and maybe if it wasn’t too much…”

I couldn’t quite finish the sentence. We’d used up all our savings on the down payment for the townhouse, so unless he was offering the lot for $19.99, I wasn’t a potential buyer.

“Let’s not talk money. Let’s talk dinner. Do you like pierogies?”

My face must have looked pretty comical because he burst out laughing, a long rumbling chuckle that ended in a little coughing fit.

“Never mind,” he said when he had finished. “You’ll like pierogies. Everyone likes pierogies. Come to dinner tomorrow.”

“Um, well…thank you.” I was struggling to find my bearing. “My wife actually…she said I should invite you to dinner at our house if you’d like.”

“Did she? How kind. I accept. But another time we’re doing the pierogies. You’ll love them. Should I come tomorrow?”

“Um…yeah…sure. That would be great.”

He held out his hand again, and after I’d taken it, gave me one firm hand shake and turned toward his own house. When he went up his front steps, I was still standing where he’d left me. It took another ten minutes before I realized I must look ridiculous and went back inside.

“How was it?” Gwen was waiting to pounce on me when I walked into the door. “I peeked a little. Definitely old. Not sure about the axe murderer, though. You looked a little scared.”

“You could have come outside,” I said. 

“Not with the axe murderer thing still in question! Think of our child!”

“He’s not an axe murderer. He’s coming to dinner tomorrow.”

“Oh.” 

Sending his pregnant wife into a 24-hour flurry of dinner preparations can make a man feel a little guilty. It also makes a man wield a vacuum and learn about something called a Swiffer, so I wasn’t in the most positive frame of mind when Jeremiah Cooper rang our bell at 6:30 the next night.

Gwen was charmed from the first minute, though. He brought her a bonsai. Apparently there is something about an eighty-year-old man holding a tiny tree that really speaks to a pregnant woman.

Not that I found it possible to be grumpy for long. Jeremiah was a fascinating dinner guest. He had lived in the neighborhood through economic downturns and the corresponding upturns, through presidential elections and presidential assassinations, through men landing on the moon and shuttles exploding in the atmosphere, through several wars overseas and through the painful changes each had brought back home. I could have listened to his stories all night.

When he finished dinner, though, he began to question us, not about things like jobs and where we grew up but odd questions about what games we had played as children and why we liked the music we did and what our favorite fairy-tales were. After about an hour of these questions, he finally pushed back from the table and smiled.

“I have one more story for you,” he said. “I told you I was six when we moved into 4430, but what I did not say is that I was very sick. For several years I did very little and seldom got as far from bed as the window that looked down onto the empty lot next door. It was a rare condition, but that is not important to the story.” He waved away our questions. “What is important is that on the occasions that I made it to my window, I would sit and look down, and each time I saw lights flickering through the trees. It didn’t look like firelight, more like fireflies dancing, but it was during the day. I was never out of bed after dark. The first time, I dismissed the lights as nothing, but after the second and third times, I began to be obsessed with them. I would lie in bed and imagine what could be causing the light: pirates with their lanterns, traveling magicians practicing their tricks, fairies hidden away in the trees. These imaginings kept me company on many long and painful days. Finally, one day when I was eight years old, I felt a little stronger, and my mother decided it was safe to leave me for half an hour to go to the store. As soon as she was gone, I dragged my weak body down the stairs and outside. I was exhausted by the time I got to the front steps, but excitement kept me going and I limped around into the lot. I could see the lights under the trees at the back, so I slowly made my way along the edge to where they twinkled. When I arrived, I was terribly disappointed. No pirates. No magicians. No fairies. Just a girl.

“She was pretty, but I wasn’t of an age to care about that. If I hadn’t used all my energy getting to the spot, I would have turned around and gone straight home. As it was, I half-collapsed onto the grass and tried not to cry. The girl saw me and ran over, very concerned about my health. I’m afraid I was very rude when I told her I was fine and she shouldn’t bother.

“‘I’ve seen your face in the window!’ She said. ‘Have you been sick for long?’

“I hated questions about my health, so I didn’t answer. 

“‘I thought maybe you were trapped in that room, just as I am,’ she said. ‘But I suppose not if you’ve come here.’

“‘You’ve come here, too,’ I said sullenly.

“‘I have’t come here. I’m always here. I can’t leave.’

“Now she had my interest, but I wasn’t ready to show it yet. ‘Of course you can leave. What’s to stop you?’ I sneered.

“‘The magician,’ she answered. ‘My father is a king in a far away land, but he wouldn’t give up his throne to the magician. He knew the magician would mistreat his people. So the magician stole me away and brought me here and trapped me in the glass castle, and now I can never leave.’

“I pretended to laugh at this invention but inside I was enchanted by her story. Trying not to sound too interested, I asked her more questions. Her name was Daisy. She had been living in the glass castle for three years, she said, and I was the first person she had talked to besides the magician who only visited once a month. The castle was magical, of course, and she knew no one could see it but her, but she had practiced some magic of her own, lighting special candles to illuminate her home. Those were the lights I had seen, and when she learned that I could see them she was delighted. The happier she got with our conversation, the more I felt the need to be distant, and finally I knew I must begin the slow walk home or my mother would discover that I had been out.

“‘I can help you, you know,’ said the girl as I stood to leave.

“I stopped.

“‘He leaves me magic potions to make food and medicines and anything I might need while he’s gone. I could make you one. It would cure your sickness.’

“I shrugged as if I didn’t care, but really my heart was pounding. To get better. To be able to leave the house. To go to school and play baseball like the other boys. 

“‘Wait here,” she said and ran out from under the trees into the bright sunlight in the middle of the grassy lot. I was still watching her when she disappeared. She had gone into her glass castle, you see, and everything about that castle was invisible. I waited so long I began to think she wasn’t going to return. I began to feel angry that she had gotten my hopes up for nothing. Then in a blink, she reappeared, running toward me with a little flask in her hands.

“‘Drink it all,’ she said, stern as a doctor. I nodded, and I’m ashamed to say that I left without saying good-bye. I was worried about my mother returning and consumed with doubt and hope about the flask in my hands. 

“I did manage to make it back to the house unnoticed. I sat on my bed for a long time staring at that flask. Then I drank it all.”

“Did it work?” Gwen asked breathlessly.

“It did. I woke up the next morning in perfect health. My parents thought it was a miracle. They took me to doctors. All trace of my condition was gone. They enrolled me in school. My mother cried. I got a baseball bat for my birthday. And after that, I went to visit Daisy next door every day. I did my homework under her trees. I told her all my baseball stories. Before long she was my best friend. I went from being the loneliest boy on the street to the happiest one in the city.”

He paused for long that I thought the story was ended. 

“So that’s why you’ve kept the lot all this time,” I said. “In her memory?”

Jeremiah snorted. “I’ve kept it because she still lives there!”

I traded a look with Gwen. It hadn’t occurred to me before that moment that senility might already be setting in. He seemed so lucid.

“We grew up. Inevitably, I fell in love with her. She loved me, too. But she wasn’t free from the magician. We made a plot. I would hide in the trees. He didn’t know about me. When he came for his monthly visit, I would spring out and capture him. We would force him to free her. But he never came. From one month to the next, he just disappeared. And Daisy was still trapped. She couldn’t leave and I couldn’t see her home. We could only be together under the trees. She refused to marry me. She said it wasn’t fair. I refused to stop coming to visit. We were both very stubborn. I found out that the man who had owned the lot with the glass castle had died. I bought the land. I’ve owned it ever since. After a while, it became clear that there was more to the enchantment that we had understood. I got older. Daisy did not. She has stayed young all these years. She was right not to marry me, I suppose, but I was also right not to leave her.”

He paused again for a long time.

“But now I must. It’s the cancer, and she has no more healing potions left. The doctors say I have only a few months, and then she will be left all alone.”

He sat forward, all trace of emotion suddenly gone. “So now for business. I’m not interested in money. I’ve already turned down exhorbiatant offers. I’m interested in promises, and only those who are prepared to make them will get to own that land. Are you prepared to make promises and sign them into contracts?”

Gwen had tears running down her face, so I mustered a response. “What kind of promises?”

“Three promises in specific,” Jeremiah said. “1. That you will never sell the land for any amount of money or sign it over to anyone who doesn’t make the same three promises. 2. That you will never attempt to build anything on the land or change anything that might harm the princess. 3. That you will never move away and leave her alone.”

“You want us to take care of a princess living in a glass castle?” I said.

“Daisy can take care of herself,” Jeremiah snapped. “I want you to protect her.”

“Can we meet her?” Gwen asked in a soft voice.

I threw a concerned look at my emotional wife, but Jeremiah was already standing up. 

“That, my dear, is exactly the right question.”

Gwen took the old man’s arm and followed him outside. I trailed behind, still feeling like the rug had been pulled out from under me. 

Jeremiah led us along the tree line to the back of the lot where he stopped at a ring of stones under a willow tree. 

“Daisy, dear, I’ve brought the young neighbors to meet you,” he said.

Of course, there was no one there. The light flickered through the tree branches in a way that certainly did lend a magical air to the place, but my concern for the old man holding my wife’s arm was growing by the minute.

“Yes, I thought that might happen,” he said. “She says she’s sorry that you can’t see her. We had hoped… But we knew this was more likely.”

“I’m sorry,” Gwen said gently, and I knew she was sorry for the lonely state of the old man, even though he understood something different. 

“Not your fault, dear. Likely you are too old to see past the enchantment. I got in very young, so it has always been different for me. Daisy thinks that music may help to break through, however. Would you like to hear her sing?”

Gwen cast me a helpless glance, and I wasn’t sure what was best to do. Humor him for now, I supposed. “We’d be happy to listen,” I said. 

Jeremiah fell silent and got a faraway look in his eyes. He smiled dreamily.

Of course, I heard nothing. 

I was about to suggest that we walk our neighbor home, and perhaps ask who we could call to help him, when suddenly Gwen gasped.

“I hear a song!” She said. “It’s very faint, just barely more than the breeze, but I hear it!”

I’m sure my mouth was hanging open. Was dementia catching?

Gwen grabbed my arm. “Oh James! I wish you could hear it! It’s beautiful.”

I barely remember what excuses I made or how we took leave of our neighbor or how I got my wife back home, but by the time we closed the door behind us, she was the one giving me concerned looks. 

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked.

Gwen smiled. “You don’t need to treat me like I’ve lost my mind. I know it sounds crazy. But I also know you, James. I know you loved that story. I know you love that green space, and I know you thought that tree was as magical as I did. I know you liked that old man, too. I’m not sure what I heard, or why I heard it and you didn’t. But I think we should sign that contract. We want to keep that space jsut as it is and we want to live right here forever and raise our kids in this house. Does it matter if this is real or all in his heard? It’s a lovely story, and our daughter will get to live with it forever. How could that be bad?”

She was right, and I knew it. I wasn’t ready to let go of my wisdom and admit it, but in my heart, I knew there was no doubt. I argued for a while that committing to live here forever was a big decision and on and on, but it was soulless debate. In less than two hours, we had agreed to tell Jeremiah that we’d do it.

So we did. We signed a contract that we would live in this house forever.  Jeremiah signed the deed to the empty lot over into our name the next day and we agreed to never sell it or change it. We saw him every day for the next six weeks. We ate pierogies at his kitchen table. Gwen held his hand as the pain got worse, and we both sat by his side the night that he died. The very next day our daughter Viola was born. When we brought her home from the hospital, we pointed out the lovely trees she could see from her window. 

Later that evening when Gwen was resting, I took Viola over to the green lot and held her in my arms and whispered to her the story of the princess who lived, forever young, in a glass castle she could never leave. Somehow nothing feels foolish when you are holding a sleeping baby. 

As I turned to go home, I though I heard, very faintly, the sound of someone singing. 


 

Nefarious 

On Tuesday, my baby turned six. I wrote about that here. Today, a story in her honor. Because if anyone were ever going to turn cuteness into an evil superpower, it would be her, but I’m still hopeful she’ll take a different path.  

  

Once upon a time there was a little cotton-tail bunny with soft white fur, sweet pink paws, and big brilliant blue eyes. Blue-eyes bunnies are the rarest of all bunnies, so everyone who saw her stopped short and gasped at her beauty. And, of course, they called her Bluette.

It didn’t take long for Bluette to discover the power of her extreme cuteness.  Her power worked on her family, who gave her the snuggliest spot in the bunny pile each night. It worked on her friends, who only needed one blink of her big blue eyes to give in on any argument and let her have her way. It even worked on humans, who shouted when they saw her in their garden but then gasped when she looked up at them and let her hop away with extra lettuce in her mouth.

There was only one rabbit who was not susceptible to Bluette’s power, her best friend Ralph. Ralph was born on the same day at Bluette, and they grew up together, but he could not have been more different. Ralph was plain, dull brown. His tail was scraggly. His paws were always muddy. His eyes were so dark they were almost black. No one ever looked into them and felt like doing him extra favors. 

 Maybe this was why Ralph didn’t always give Bluette her way. Or maybe it was because he had known her from the beginning. Maybe it was because he was secretly against her. Or maybe it was because he was her truest friend.

In any case, Ralph would always say to Bluette, “You could do anything you wanted with your powers of cuteness.” And then he always followed it up by saying, “Be careful.” And he would often mention all the great things she could influence people to do: dig deeper and safer tunnels, be kinder to the weakest bunnies, plant more lettuce.  

Bluette would always mention to Ralph that he was terribly boring.  

Then she would follow that up with a powerful blink of her big blue eyes, but Ralph just turned away. 

Bluette knew the power of her cuteness and she did not want to be careful. She wanted to have fun. She wanted to be loved. She wanted to be obeyed. She wanted all the lettuce.

As she grew into an adult, Bluette did not use her power to influence people to great things.  She used it to get compliments. She used it to get the best rooms in the warren. She used it to get the greenest lettuce. 

Then subtly she began to use it for more and more. She used it to take over a human’s back yard. Then she used it to gather an army of rabbits. Then she used it to take over a town. 

Before long, Bluette the Bunny was the cold-hearted Blue Diamond, ruler of three states, with rank upon rank of bunny soldiers who fought and died at her command but were so quickly replaced that none could conquer them.  

Those blue, blue eyes that once melted hearts now froze them. Everyone obeyed, either because they were enchanted by her or afraid of her. 

Everyone, that is, except one.

Ralph still lived within the rule of the Blue Diamond, but he did not stop speaking his mind to her and he did not stop turning away when she fixed her piercing stare on him.  Bluette often threatened to banish him or even to have him killed, but she never did. 

Maybe it was because she liked a challenge. Maybe it was because she had known him from the beginning. Maybe it was because she was waiting for the right time to make an example of him. Or maybe it was because somewhere in her nefarious heart she wanted to believe him when he said it wasn’t too late to change, to begin using her powers for the good of others.

But change is hard. And the Blue Diamond was not used to doing hard things. Instead she conquered more land and piled up more vegetables in her hoard and brought more rabbits under her dominion. And as always happens with tyrants, eventually some bunnies began to rise up against her and she began to be afraid and then she began to be paranoid about losing her power. 

Then her sister had a baby bunny. It was a girl bunny, white as snow with tiny pink paws and blue, blue eyes. The Blue Diamond saw instantly that this bunny was a threat to her own power. She was paralyzed with fear. 

As she sat in her throne room, deep in the warren, worrying over this adorable new baby, Ralph came in to see her. He congratulated her on her new niece and watched the fear in her eyes. He began to be worried for the bunny’s safety. So Ralph proposed a plan. He would take the baby and her mother far away from Bluette’s kingdom. He would take good care of them and keep them from being a threat to Bluette (and, though he didn’t say it, keep her from being a threat to them). The Blue Diamond leaped at this chance to be rid of her problem.

So Ralph went away, sad to be leaving his friend, whom he had never quite given up on, but happy to be able to save something from the mess that Bluette had made. He helped raise the baby (Blanche) far away from other rabbits and even humans who might be influenced by her great beauty. He did not want her to suffer the same fate as Bluette.

Blanche grew up knowing that she was loved, but never imagining that her white fur or blue eyes could be used to gain her own way. It certainly never worked on the rabbit she called father.  She was a sassy bunny, full of life and energy, and she brought light into the life of everyone she met, few though those people were. And if from time to time she heard stories of The Blue Diamond, they were only as cautionary tales.

Ralph followed the news from a distance. He heard of the uprisings that the Blue Diamond ruthlessly quelled. He heard of the day when the humans decided they had had enough of this upstart rabbit and solved the problem once and for all. He heard of Bluette’s death, and he mourned for his friend. Then he put all his energy into teaching Blanche about the power of beauty and how it could be used to do great things and help many people. 

 And one day, when Blanche was old enough, he sat her down and told her the story of her aunt, how once upon a time there had been a cotton-tail bunny with soft white fur who had become a hard diamond and who could never find her way back again but who had never quite let go of her friend and so had given her neice the chance to take a different path.

Mellifluous

mellifluous

Melanie was special from the very beginning. You couldn’t tell it to look at her. She lay in her crib like an ordinary infant, only a tiny covering of fuzz on her head. But when she cried, you knew immediately that something was different. Normally, crying babies make you want to plug your ears or run away or possibly tear your hair out if you can’t do either of the first things. Not Melanie’s cry. Her little face scrunched up and her mouth opened up in a wide, angry frown, but the noise that came out was so smooth and sweet that anyone who heard it felt better about their life immediately. It made you want to cuddle her and feed her and be near her forever.

Needless to say, Melanie was a well loved child.

As she grew, the whole village came to recognize the power of her voice. It didn’t matter if she was talking, laughing, or crying, anyone who heard her felt instantly at peace. And when she sang…well, no one in the village got any work done when Melanie sang. Those who were particular strong would stop what they were doing and listen and have pleasant day dreams. Those who weren’t particularly strong would generally fall asleep.

It was her singing which eventually drew the notice of the queen. It just so happened that one day as Melanie was walking home from school, the queen was passing through the village in her carriage on her way home from visiting her old grandmother. The queen was feeling very sad about her sick grandmother and very worried about going home to the king until the sound of a little girl singing suddenly soothed all her cares away and caused her to drift into the first real sleep she had slept in weeks.

As soon as her carriage left town and the queen was out of earshot of that voice, she started awake. She immediately insisted that her driver turn the carriage around, and she went into the village to search for the sound of that powerful music. The townspeople knew immediately it must have been Melanie, and so it was that just as Melanie’s mother was putting dinner on the table, the queen knocked on the door of their cottage!

We can skip over the long and boring conversations that ensued. The end result was that the next morning, the queen set off for the palace, taking eight-year-old Melanie with her and leaving behind her very worried parents with no sweet voice to soothe their cares.

In the palace, Melanie was treated like a princess. In fact, the queen treated her even better than her own two daughters, the actual princesses. This was because she had never had any use for her daughters, while Melanie was someone she needed desperately.

You see, the king in this country was a very bad man. He was bitter and angry and thought of no one but himself. He made unfair laws and never listened to any complaints. He gave huge parties for people who flattered him and exiled anyone who dared to criticize him. He had fits of temper in which he would break dishes and throw shoes at innocent people who happened to be in the way.

It was for this last reason that the queen wanted Melanie. The queen was tired of her dishes being broken, and more than once she herself had been on the receiving end of a shoe. But she knew that if she sent Melanie in to talk to the king when he was in a bad mood, he would calm down quickly, and if that didn’t work, the girl could just sing and put him to sleep.

This plan worked perfectly, and from the day Melanie moved into the palace, it became a much more peaceful place. The servants, who had been treated horribly before, were grateful for the break. The queen was happy to be safe from flying shoes, and even the two princesses weren’t as jealous as they might have been, probably because they had lots of late night conversations with Melanie, and her voice soothed them to sleep so happily.

This might have been a happily ever after for everyone (for even Melanie benefited from the finest food and access to beautiful gardens and a first rate education) if the king hadn’t accidentally made a discovery of his own.

One day, just after Melanie turned 16, she was in the throne room reading out loud to the king and soothing his frazzled nerves, when two lords entered the room, both demanding that the king take back his new law that everyone in the kingdom had to pay money to build a statue of the king in the town square. The lords were quite irate about it, but the minute they charged into the room and heard Melanie reading, they both stopped. Suddenly they couldn’t remember why they had been so upset. Something about the new law being too much for the poor workers? The king, of course, though he was feeling peaceful, was still quite selfish, so he refused to change his law. The two lords smiled and nodded and left without another word.

Outside the palace and back on their horses, they suddenly remembered their anger, but by then, of course, it was too late to go back and say anything. They had already agreed to the law.

The king saw a new way to always have what he wanted. From that day on, he made any law he chose, but instead of having his heralds read out the laws, he sent Melanie around from village to village, reading it all in her soothing voice. If anyone came later to complain, he sent them to Melanie for an hour, and they left without another word.

Oh, the laws the king could make now that no one objected to anything. He made a law that no one could travel without asking him first. He made a law that half of everything everyone owned would be his. He made a law that anytime anyone tasted something they especially loved, they had to stop eating it immediately and send it to the palace for him to try. He made a law that every citizen had to send him a birthday present each year.

Of course, Melanie was very young when she began reading out these laws, but even so, they seemed strange to her and more than a little unfair. Still, she had been trained to be obedient, so she went along until the day she met the orphan.

Melanie was riding back to the palace after delivering the news of yet another ridiculous law when she heard someone crying. She followed the sound to a little shrub by the side of the road, and under its leaves, she found a little boy, dirty, scrawny, and sobbing his heart out.

Of course, the second she asked what was the matter, he stopped crying. He told her that his parents had been forced to give half of their food to the king, and since they were very poor, that only left two loaves of bread and a piece of cheese for the whole family to eat. The next week was the king’s birthday, and they had no present to send. They had already eaten the last of the food. When the king found out they sent nothing, his soldiers came and took the boys’ parents away to the dungeons. The boy had been wandering the streets ever since, looking for something to eat, but had found nothing. No one but the king had any extra these days.

When Melanie heard this, her heart was broken. She saw immediately that her voice had helped to make pitiful slaves of these people, and she felt like the worst tyrant on earth. She wanted to find a way to make it right, but she didn’t know how.

Singing the loveliest song, she knew, Melanie put all the soldiers who guarded her to sleep and carried the sleeping orphan on her own horse, galloping away toward the only place she could think to find wisdom.

The old abbey at the top of the hill was already a peaceful place. The monks who lived there stayed out of most of the evils of the world, and so were not touched by the events of late. They kindly fed the orphan and listened to Melanie’s story. When she had finished, they pondered for a long time.

Finally, they recommended that the safest course of action was for Melanie to come live with them. She could take a vow of silence and then no one would ever misuse her gift again.

Melanie thought they must be right. She felt sad and lonely at the thought of living up here so far away from other people and never singing again, but she didn’t want to hurt anyone again. She knew she was dangerous. She opened her mouth to agree to this solution.

Before she could speak, the orphan boy raised his head from his soup and frowned. How would a vow of silence help his parents? he asked. And what about all those people who were starving? Was she just going to abandon them?

Melanie burst into tears, which made all the monks and the orphan feel that life was truly beautiful in its sadness. Even as she cried, Melanie watched their sympathetic faces, and for the first time since she was eight years old, considered that she might be able to use her voice as she chose, and not as someone else wanted her to.

Leaving the orphan with the monks to be fed and cared for until his parents were released, Melanie made her way down off the mountain.
The king, of course, was very angry that Melanie had put her guards to sleep and disappeared like that, but she spoke quietly to him, and he settled down. She knew from experience that her voice alone would not be enough to overcome the king’s selfishness, so instead, she offered to sing him his favorite lullaby.

Once he was asleep, Melanie went down to the guardroom and had a chat with all the guards. Soon all the prisoners in the dungeons were gathered outside the gates, rubbing their wrists and looking around in confusion. Melanie calmed their fears and sent them home.

Then Melanie went to the keeper of the storeroom and told him a long story. When it was finished, he got his keys and instructed his helpers to begin distributing all the extra food in the pantries.

Finally, Melanie went to the guest rooms, where several prominent lords and ladies were sleeping. She woke them gently and had a few words with them as a group.

Then Melanie left the palace on her favorite horse and never looked back.

When the king woke in the morning, all the lords and ladies were standing around his bed, and more than one had a sword in hand. The lords and ladies explained a few things to the king, and as they did not have Melanie’s voice, he did not take it very well, but in the end, with all those swords so close to his nose, he had no choice but to agree. From then on, things were quite different in the kingdom.

No one from the palace was quite sure where Melanie had gone, but it was definitely true that if you went up into the mountains on a spring or summer day, you would hear the wind singing such a soothing song that you would come home feeling refreshed and rested like you had never felt before.