by Beate Sigriddaughter
“Where are you going?” asked the laughing young king.
“I have to attend the birth of a girl. She’ll have the most beautiful voice in all the world one day,” said his brown-eyed gypsy lover. “I have to give her a blessing.”
“Then I’ll come with you,” said the king, winding one of her long black curls around his gentle fingers.
After the little girl emerged from between her mother’s legs and was presented to her father and the assembled guests, she cried out once, an ordinary baby’s cry of considerable anguish. The king looked at the gypsy, the gypsy looked at the king.
“Not yet,” she said. “That was just her baby cry.”
So enchanted was the king with his sparkling gypsy lover and her interest in this newborn baby that he promised to raise the girl in his castle as though she were his own daughter.
At first the parents stalled. The mother held her small baby close to her chest.
“She’ll have a good life with me,” the king said. “Much better than here.”
The mother's face creased in consternation.
The king noticed three boys hanging back by the door, peering into the room with enormous round eyes.
“I’ll also pay to raise your boys,” the king said. “I’ll give them an education."
That was an offer too good to pass up, at least so the father thought.
“She will have a voice golden like the sun and silver like the moon. Her name will be Chantal,” the gypsy whispered to the mother.
And so the king and the gypsy raised the girl who grew and prospered and smiled and played and started singing happy songs. She walked in the king’s garden in a shimmering white dress among the roses and the larkspur. Soon she was allowed to eat at the king’s table, and sometimes she sang duets with the gypsy. Together they made gorgeous harmonies. The gypsy taught her to coo and to trill, and sounds of joy and praise, and they ate sugar plums and other delicacies.
For seven years Chantal lived with the king and his gypsy love. Then one day, the gypsy died.
The king was inconsolable. He kissed his lover’s lifeless brow one last time. The girl, too, bent over her gypsy’s face and placed a kiss on her cheek.
The king really, really tried. But the little girl reminded him too much of his lost gypsy lover and he could no longer bear her presence.
So one day he had a suitcase packed for her, and a large chest of sweetmeats.
He carried the girl in his own arms to her parents’ house, which now looked far less shabby than it had at her birth.
“I’ve brought you your daughter to raise,” he said.
“When will you come to take me back to where I live?” Chantal asked the king.
“This is where you live now,” the king said. And Chantal looked around her and was a bit frightened. “These are your parents,” the king added.
The parents were of mixed mind. They had already given her up to what they thought was a fabulous fate. Besides, they didn’t even know the girl. But when they learned that the king would not stop their sons’ allowance, they resigned themselves to raising the girl.
They didn’t dare ask, Would the king come back for her when the girl was raised? The king, for his part, didn’t feel compelled to volunteer that he wanted the girl off his hands forever.
Chantal was pretty and her voice was beautiful indeed.
When her parents asked her to show them how she had spent her days at the castle, she tried, but they didn’t know anything about pleasure gardens and royal tables and chandeliers, and she couldn’t show them. Then, too, the roses in the king’s garden were much larger than the climbing roses at her mother’s kitchen door, though the larkspur growing wild in the corner of the yard behind the dung heap was the same.
The other thing that was the same was Christmastide when they had roast goose for their dinner. “That’s what we ate at the king’s table,” Chantal said, glad that she could finally tell them about something besides larkspur.
One day her mother discovered that a music teacher lived in the nearby town.
“We could take just a few coins from the boys’ allowance each.”
“No,” said the father. “The boys’ allowance is for them. If the king wanted her to have lessons, he would have made provisions.”
“Perhaps he didn’t think of it?” the mother ventured.
“I said no,” said the father. “The boys’ allowance is theirs. Besides, she’s supposed to have the most beautiful voice in any case. The gypsy said so. Why waste good money, when it's supposed to happen anyway?”
The mother left it at that. She loved watching her daughter in the garden, singing to flowers and squirrels, and even to pigs. But one day, being timid and feeling, too, that perhaps a voice as beautiful as that was more precious than they deserved, the mother thought to herself, what if her marvelous voice broke one day from too much use? What if the beautiful voice were damaged and they would be blamed for it? Besides, it didn't seem right to squander a precious voice on pigs or squirrels or even roses. What if there was a limit to beauty? So she told her daughter not to sing anymore, and not to speak anymore either, to protect her precious voice.
The king had not entirely forgotten, but he longed to forget, because he wanted to get over the loss of his gypsy love. He never succeeded. He never found a replacement for his lover, though he looked. He didn't want to be reminded. So he never came back to visit, much less to claim Chantal with her beautiful voice.
Meanwhile, the other children in the village school made fun of silent Chantal, who felt she had to obey. Once, just one time, she sang to herself alone in the garden. But her mother had returned from an errand sooner than expected and looked at her with such sorrowful eyes that Chantal never tried it again.
She learned enough at school to write notes to her mother. In one of them she begged to stay away from the school where the other children only laughed at her.
For a while she climbed trees and went for walks.
“Don’t move too much,” her mother said one day. “We don’t want to damage your voice in any way."
She learned from books, as is often the case with creatures who are not allowed to use their voices or to move too much. Her face was pale. She had a cat she liked to pet, but even the cat was often busy with many other things. Sometimes she wasn't quite sure whether she was really awake and really alive.
Her brothers did well. One became a doctor, one became a teacher, one opened a shop with jewels and chinaware. They married and led prosperous and fruitful lives. They visited rarely. But one day one of them came with his boy, already five years old, who liked to examine the world. He discovered a great many things.
“Look, a cat,” he cried. “An egg. A lamb!" He especially liked the lamb. “Larkspur,” he exclaimed as he ventured near the dung heap.
Even after he was called inside for dinner, he still wasn’t finished making discoveries, for at the dinner table, silent and gray with invisibility, was Chantal.
“What is that?” He didn’t recognize her as something human, so still and colorless had she become. This startled everyone. They had mostly forgotten her well-behaved presence.
“Oh, that’s your Aunt Chantal.”
“Is she human?” he asked.
“Can I touch her?”
“Would she break?”
“Why is she like that?”
“Nobody knows. She once lived with a king. Maybe that’s why.”
“Why did she live with a king?”
“Because she has the most beautiful voice in the world.”
“Can I hear it?”
“No. She’s saving it.”
Pale Chantal stood up in a panic. What would happen if she actually opened her mouth now after all these years? What if, after so much promise, she wasn’t good enough?
Her heart felt frozen. Her voice felt frozen.
She remembered the king. She remembered having been put aside, then saved for some nebulous future, fading away like some unused treasure in the attic. She remembered songs she should be singing, trees she should be climbing, hearts she should be touching. She remembered the gypsy most of all, with her love and her freedom and her carefree strength. There was no one like that in Chantal’s life now to guide her or love her or even just to notice her. Chantal had been betrayed with a promise of beauty which she was then not allowed to use, just in case.
And so she opened her mouth.
There was the rasp of clearing her throat. Then, like rust crumbling, her scream shattered the stunned silence around her. Even the chickens stopped pecking in the yard. The pain was great, and the long neglected voice expressed it to perfection. Spoons and forks clattering to the table top made the only other sound. The people at the table held their breath, especially the little boy who was frightened and pulled his hands over his ears.
What an ugly voice, everyone thought, pierced by the roar of pain. The mother was afraid it might be heard all the way in town, or, worse, even at the king’s castle. It sounded like a beast in agony.
“This is what I know,” Chantal said, with bitterness falling from her mouth like flint. “First you gave me a promise, then you abandoned me. You left me to wither. You’ve never listened to me. Now do you expect me to make beauty with my voice? Or would you rather I kept silent forever about what I know of all the wrong choices, all the mistakes?"
But suddenly her voice changed, and her skin and her eyes took on color.
“And you know what?” she said. “No matter what, I can do that. Now it is time to praise the world." Already she started sounding like a song. “Now it is time to sing of the beauty of things, so that we don’t forget again. How beautiful things are when we don’t forget what we have. Life. Yes. And whatever befalls us can never change our true nature. Never. Look. Listen. The blackbirds, the geese, the grasses. The chickens back to clucking over their grain. If I sounded like a monster to you, it is because you have kept me silent too long. It is my destiny to be loud, to make you cry for what has been lost to neglect and mistakes, to comfort you with what remains. The blazing magic of your life. But before I can give you your own beauty, you have to let me open my mouth.”
The little boy stood up, too, now and moved around the table and took her hand. Together they walked away from the table and out into the garden, and beyond it to the town.
When the sun went down that night, the boy stood waving to her from his own parents’ house where he stayed behind while she kept on walking, through the town, through the country, past the castle, on into the world, where she sang and sang and sang.
If you are a woman and you listen to the gold and silver in your heart, deep down below the pale obedience, you can hear her even now.