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“How will you find the path?” asked the wolf,
waiting on the water’s edge.

“What need have I of the path?
I am the woodsman’s daughter,
and I would know my way home
in dawn or dusk or clear or storm.
My grandmother’s house lies West,
and the sun is newly risen.
I need no guide
but my own shadow.”

“The forest is no place for a child,
but full of beasts roaming wild.
Take from me a cloak
to replace the one you left below,
that you may walk the woods
unseen, unbothered and unburdened.”

She followed his directions to a nearby tree,
where hung a monstrous hide. At her touch
it shrunk and smoothed into a grey cloak,
as fine and light as spider’s silk,
as soft as ash.

The winds obeyed her
when she wore the grey cloak.
They carried sounds to her,
a bird’s chirp,
a rabbit’s patter,
the heartbeat of each living thing,
for miles around,
and scents, too–
cooking on a stove
three miles West.
And amidst the bacon sizzling,
pancakes crisping,
syrup drizzling,
and tea steaming
in the winter air,
was unexpected company.

She let the winds carry her
the last few miles,
to the highest of the three oaks
overlooking her grandmother’s cottage.
There she sat upon a bough,
her eyes narrowed,
listening with her head tilted
and her ears pricked.

Through the window she could see
a pair of lambskin gloves,
with hands inside, she supposed,
folded neatly upon wool trousers.

“Well aren’t you a sight to see.
I thought you came to visit me,”
came a voice from below the tree.
“Or will you stay up there and leave us
the cookies to bake,
the beds to make,
the mayor’s son to entertain–”

“The mayor’s son?”

“The very same.”

“And what would he be doing here?”

“Come down and see, my ashen dear,
or will you stay up in the sky?”

“Perhaps I will, and learn to fly.”

“Are there cookies quite so high?”

“None I spy, none I spy.”

“And are there fires up there roaring?”

“None I found in my soaring.”

“And none inside, either,
after your mother spilled the tea
and drenched the whole pile of logs.
Be a love and help me gather the firewood.”

“My mother? Don’t you mean
your daughter?”

But she climbed down all the same,
and helped tend the drowned flame
while with the mayor’s son
her father spoke, and finally
he came to speak to her.

She would be moving away,
he told her, to cook and clean
for the mayor and his son.
who her mother did not fail
to remind her was
“so tall,
so fair,
so terribly dashing,” and
so on, and
so forth,”
so the very next day,
in the grey mist of morning,
she set out on the path–
but not before her grandmother
took the mayor’s son and
shook the mayor’s son awake,
and bade him follow after.

She walked the woods,
the mayor’s son drifting after,
commenting, from time to time,
on charming trivialities,
’til at length they stopped and sat.

“What lovely flowers grow by the path,”

he said, plucking one where it trembling stood
and pressing it to her nose.

Not so lovely as those off it,”

she said, pushing it away.

“And none so lovely ,”
and at her stare he stopped,
and let the hand reached forward drop,
“as the roses in my garden.”

“I suppose you’ll say
they smell sweeter?”

“Sweeter still, and even softer
than this cape you wear about you.”

“As fine and light as spiders silk?”

“As soft as ash, these petals red velvet,
and cream white,” he replied.

“How delicious your garden must be,
for you to describe it so,” she said.

“Smell it for yourself,
for I am told it possesses
sweetness to bend the–”

“The very soul?” She asked.

“The very same,” He agreed.
“But how did you know?
Never except in dreams
have I seen you in our garden.”

“Except in dreams?”

“Why yes, but always I have silly dreams,
and strange, my father says… But I remember
now the one long summer
when your father came to work for us.
Like death he was, thin and gaunt,
and father fed him just enough to tend the flowers.
It was for that debt
that your father sent you.
You must’ve come and followed him,
to know the scent and feel of my garden,
and it is that I must remember,
and see again in my dreams.
Strange though, for in my dreams….
but never mind.”

“Never mind what?” Ash replied,
and she could see his smile grow wide.

“You promise not to think me mad?”

“Promises are for… I promise not to think you madder,
than the madness that comes with dreams.
For I too have dreamed strange things.”

“In my dreams you wear
no ashen cloak,
but a wolf’s fur,
and where you walk
grows a path of stone,
perhaps marble, perhaps bone,
and behind you as you walk,
a long and twisted shadow stalks.”

“How strange dreams are!” She exclaimed.
“But not so strange as our own life,
where I am sold to be your wife.
Tell me, did you dream of that?”

“My dreams are not so wild, My Lady,
for your father has but said you’ll cook and clean.
But you too said you have strange dreams–
are these, I wonder, some of yours?”

“I fear I have too limited an imagination.”

“A sign of an honest mind,
which would leave me in, I confess,
quite a bind.”

“And why is that?”

“Because, my dear, I fear what you fear,
that soon we will both be stuck here,
tied together by our fathers,
and honesty would quite destroy
so many of my little joys.”

“I hope you will be more specific.”

“Hunting, cards, chess, roulette,
anything where you can bet.
I’d love an eye over a shoulder,
to make my calls a little bolder.”

“You would like me to help you cheat?”

“So well in town I can’t be beat.”

“Almost as well,” she laughed,
if you want men to play you.”

“Already thinking like a winner.”

“Or a dirty lowdown sinner,
but–”

“You’ll help me if I let you tend the garden,
I would bet.”

“That’s one game won.”

“Then it’s set.
As for marriage, let’s wait and see
what our fathers’ plans will be.”