You meet him at a rodeo dance on the Fourth of July. You are 17. He is 20; a calf roper with dangerous eyes and sinewy grace. He isn’t tall, so you talk to him easily without craning your neck while he grins and chews gum. When he leans in to ask you to dance, he smells of Big Red and beer. Tell him to put his beer down before you’ll dance with him. Some cowboys dance holding beers loosely in one hand, but your mama thinks it’s tacky and won’t stand for it. Without the beer he flattens his hand low on your back and pulls you right up against his belt buckle, the tops of your thighs touching as you match him step-for-step in 4/4 time. A fine layer of sawdust glides beneath your boots; the stony planes of his shoulder flex beneath his starched shirt as he spins you around the concrete pavilion.
When you marry him in a satin dress with princess sleeves your mama and daddy sit stiffly in the front pew. She clutches her pocketbook and a tissue, but doesn’t cry. Your daddy sits with his arms crossed and his eyes straight ahead. When the preacher says ‘You may kiss the bride’ the Cowboy bends you backward and puts his tongue in your mouth right there on the altar in front of everybody. Your mama looks away.
Move in with his weary brokedown parents and finish high school by correspondence. You should get on the pill right away. If you don’t, you will get pregnant, and you’re not ready to be a mother. Be surprised when you’re almost immediately pregnant. When you start to show, the Cowboy makes jokes about how he’s gonna have to start hauling you around in his horse trailer, and let the horse ride up front. He takes a sudden interest in what you eat, narrowing his eyes at your dinner plate, widening them if you get up for seconds. Then one weekend he packs the truck for a rodeo a few hundred miles away and suggests you might oughtta stay home. That Saturday night, sit in front of the TV in a tented floral housedress you’ve borrowed from his mother. Wonder who he’s dancing with.
After your son is born the Cowboy hardly ever comes home. Your mother-in-law loves to hold him but she won’t give him back when he cries. You follow her around the living room with your hands out, lowering them slightly each time she turns away. Your father-in-law turns up the TV and your baby screams on her shoulder until he passes out. She pats his back and looks at you over the top of her spectacles, triumphant. Call your mother from your room and cry like your baby. Your in-laws can’t hear you over the TV.
Your mama clucks her tongue and shushes you, calls you Angel and swears it’ll be all right. She says she’ll talk to your daddy and together you devise a plan: tell the Cowboy you want to take the baby to visit your parents. They don’t live far away. Get your big suitcase out of the back of the closet and pack for the weekend. He won’t notice how much you’re taking, he’s barely looked at you in months, but leave behind an ugly T-shirt and some jeans that don’t fit. Your white satin dress hangs in the closet, smashed between the wall and some winter coats nobody wears. Push the coats aside. The fabric of the dress slips like water over your fingers. When the Cowboy walks in your heart jumps; you flinch like you’ve been caught. ‘You’re not taking the damn dress,’ he says.
On Sunday, when you’re supposed to leave your parents’ house he tells you to hurry up and get your shit together. Hold the baby tight against your chest and tell him you’re staying. In the kitchen your daddy coughs a dry cough, not a real cough at all, as if to say don’t forget he’s right there. The Cowboy hears it, too so he doesn’t holler at you. Instead he hisses through his teeth that you’re a stupid fucking bitch. He hisses and narrows his eyes. Like a rattlesnake. Listen as he roars out of your parents’ driveway in your car, the car your parents gave you before you married him. He’ll wreck it before you see him again. File for divorce with your parents’ help.
Take a job cleaning rooms at the local motel and leave your baby with your mother while you go to work. It’s hard work, scrubbing toilets and floors and making beds. You’re tired when you get home. You feel tainted, coated in other people’s grime. Despite the rubber gloves, Mr Clean chaps your skin and ruins your nails. But: your divorce is final and your baby spends his days napping in your mother’s arms, banging pans together on her kitchen floor, and at her table, eating sliced apricots and garden peas with his fingers. Except one day you come home and he refuses to leave her arms to come to you. He clings to her neck and turns away. Everyone laughs.
Go to a barbecue on a date. Your Date abandons you to gather round the keg with his thick-set buddies, where they all puff out their chests and make jokes at each other’s expense. Catch yourself making eye contact that lasts a beat too long with his taller, funnier, better-looking older brother, who is not by the keg. He is bringing a plate of potato salad and pinto beans to somebody’s grandmother. Look away and smile, as if to yourself, when he sees you watching. When he sidles up to ask if you’re having a good time, do you need another beer?—peer into your cup and frown, as if it contains something that puzzles you. Then show him its empty bottom and raise your eyebrows.
‘Now that’s a shame, he says.
‘Isn’t it?’ you say.
He says he’s got beer on ice, far superior to the swill in the keg, and would you rather have that? Of course you would. He is parked out front, down the street a little ways from the party. He dips his hand elbow-deep into a chest of ice water in the back of his truck and offers you a dripping bottle. He is a Football Coach; he tells you about his ‘boys’, about his team. His cheeks dimple when he smiles, and there is something in the way he talks, the rhythmic rise and fall of his voice that puts you entirely at ease. Don’t go back to the party just yet. The air is soft and the beer is cold. Sit next to him on the tailgate. Glance at him sidewise and thank him for the beer. Stay there until the sun touches down on the peaked roofs of the houses along the street.
Cars pass and people leave in a kind of bass line to the melody of your conversation. ‘I have a little boy,’ you tell him, for no reason at all.
‘My brother told me,’ he answers.
You should go. He slams the tailgate and turns and there you are. He will kiss you then, and think it was his own idea.
Marry him in your parents’ living room wearing a rosy skirt with a matching jacket and shiny gold buttons. Your son toddles around, babbling while you say your vows. The boy is two, then three. Move to a nearby town with your son and your new husband and live in an apartment furnished with particleboard cabinets and peeling linoleum. Grow stronger climbing four flights of concrete steps daily, carrying your baby or your groceries to your numbered door. Make ends meet scrubbing other people’s floors, making their mirrors shine. See your reflection? Even in your stained tank top and falling-down ponytail you are young and beautiful. You still have time to get where you’re going.
When your son is ready to start kindergarten convince the Football Coach to move to a bigger city. Study business and bookkeeping at the local community college. Work hard. Stay up late, alone with columns of numbers at the kitchen table. If he asks you to come to bed, don’t say, ‘In a minute,’ knowing you’ll work at least another hour. He misses you. If you fight with him about this, and about housekeeping, and also about money, you might lose something.
Spending more time on campus, at the library, at the kitchen table alone, makes you feel even more isolated. As you drive home from class each Tuesday and Thursday night, pass apartment buildings with lighted windows and paper lanterns, neat bookcases and spare furnishings. Imagine one of them yours.
Years go by and one Christmas you realize you can’t go on with it. Break the news to them in the living room, by the fireplace. The Football Coach will cry, but you are far away already. You think it’s the only way and by the time you realize it wasn’t it’ll be too late. Your son sits next to him on the hearth; you cannot gauge his expression, cannot see his eyes in the uneven light. You should go to him. You should wrap your arms around his small shoulders and pull him close, you should tuck his head beneath your chin and breathe him in but while you are still thinking about that the Football Coach reaches out and does it.
Rent an apartment and leave the Football Coach in the house with your son.
Sleep. Study. Make plans.
File for divorce.
Start cleaning houses again. Build your clientele in good neighbourhoods, until you have to hire a girl to help you keep up. After a few more months, hire another. Now you keep the books and manage the business. The girls wear sunny yellow T-shirts and jeans, a kind of uniform. This feels like success.
The Football Coach calls to say that your son has been suspended from school for leaving campus without permission. He watches The Jungle Book two and three times a day and refuses to wear a shirt, threatens to go ‘back to the jungle’ when he’s angry. When the conversation is over, place the receiver carefully in its cradle. Your hand lingers a moment on the plastic already gone cool from your touch. Skip dinner and scrub the bathroom tile with a toothbrush until it shines. Consider ways you might influence the boy positively, things you plan to suggest to the Football Coach. Vacuum the living room, mop the kitchen floor, make yourself a bowl of hot cereal, go to bed. The next time you see the boy take him to a movie, then pizza, then shopping for video games. Are you rewarding him for misbehaving? The Football Coach thinks so. The following week, and the week after that, think of calling your son only at inconvenient times: early in the morning, during lunch, while you’re in the car, after you have crawled under the covers in your bed. He doesn’t really need you anyway. The Football Coach is a better parent than you will ever be.
Develop a circle of friends without children. A restaurant owner, an accountant, a yoga instructor. Go to dinner parties in up-and-coming neighbourhoods, held in recently purchased homes with sleek couches and new dining room sets. You make enough money now to consider buying your own house. If you saved a little, if you pooled your income with someone else’s, you could buy a pretty big one.
Sit next to a newly minted urologist. Notice his perfectly white teeth when he laughs. Admire the fine tendons in his hand, the blond hairs on his forearm as he pours your wine. When he asks for your number, say, ‘I don’t usually date blonds,’ as you write it down.
The Urologist is a runner, so run with him. He is impressed because you are fast, for a girl. He knows all the best places. He takes you to weekend road races in Hilo, New Orleans, and Boulder. Go with him to Mexico and drink salted beer with lime wedges; eat spicy ceviche and cool avocado. The Football Coach hated avocado. Disco dance under a mirrored ball without touching each other; stand next to him while he drapes his arm around your neck and gestures with a beer bottle.
Back home, lie on your back in his waterbed, his arm under your neck. Wait for him to sleep so you can roll over. In the darkness he says, ‘Let’s get married.’ Open your eyes and stare at the hollow curve beneath his jaw. Breathe. He smells good and has never been married. Say, ‘Okay.’
Buy a six-bedroom house together on an acre of land outside of town. There is a pool, and grass, and a deck off the sliding glass door to your bedroom. You want patio furniture; he wants a hot tub. Tell him he can use the hot tub at the gym. He takes out a personal loan to buy and install it. While the patio furniture sits unused by the pool you will use the hot tub every day, sometimes twice a day.
He begins a surgical rotation and is rarely home when you are. Go to bed without him; leave before he wakes up. Find yourself moving through your shared house, like roommates, or strangers, not talking. You come home from work and find your side of the bathroom counter cluttered with his mouthwash, his hair gel, cologne, and aftershave. He has plugged his electric toothbrush into the outlet on your side. Put everything away, banging cabinets, slamming drawers, rattling bottles and jars. Wipe the counter and clean the fixtures, muttering how you are no longer actually the maid.
Stop having sex with him. When you get into bed don’t let your body touch his. The space between you is a territory to be defended. If his foot brushes against your calf as you doze off, wait. Wait until you’re sure he feels the warmth of your skin, then pull your leg away. In the morning, don’t talk unless he talks to you. You can go on like this for days.
As long as you’re not having sex with him and not talking to him, stop running with him, too. Listen to him out in the yard, puffing away at his sit-ups. Roll your eyes. After two weeks, a month, everything he does—every gesture, word and breath tightens some painful screw inside you. Picking fights with him makes you feel better. It also allows you to yell at him. When he yells back, you can almost remember why you married him.
You really should have seen this coming. When he says he wants the house, laugh in his face, then get a lawyer. Now you’ve got his attention. Take the house, and pay him somewhat less than what his share is worth. Leave him with the payments on your hot tub.
At your final meeting, when Your Lawyer asks if you’d like to have dinner sometime say yes. Although you have paid handsomely for it, he has done a lot for you. Also, he wears expensive suits and impeccable ties and has a voice like river water. He tells funny stories about how many people he has outsmarted.
Buy a new dress because he will take you someplace fancier than you’re used to. Warm wood and cool stone, flattering light, expensive wines by the bottle. The one he orders tastes like dark berries and rich earth. It goes perfectly with your aged steak. Steal a glance at the charge slip.
Kiss him chastely at your front door. Allow him to stand close enough to smell the faint scent of your perfume. If he asks when he can see you next, tell him you’re not sure you want to get involved again so soon. This isn’t a lie, but it hasn’t escaped you that Your Lawyer likes a challenge.
After your second date he sends you a bouquet of tulips with crimson cups and petals streaked orange and yellow, like flames. Try to remember if any other man has ever sent you flowers. You think not. Hold his hand across the table after lunch in a downtown bistro on a Saturday afternoon. Walk along the street looking in shop windows. Let him lead you into a boutique where $400 shoes are on display. Try some on. The ones you like have tiny silver buckles and crystals that sparkle when you turn your ankle. He will buy them so you can wear them the next time he takes you out. Worry a little when he shows up at your door with a matching dress, but notice the fine stitching, the liquid fabric. Try it on. Feel its soft weight swirling around your knees; see the rich color warming your skin tone. Stop worrying.
Don’t you deserve his extravagant gifts? After six months, when he presents you with yet another velvet box you aren’t surprised to find a diamond ring inside.
Wear the swirly dress and the crystal shoes when you marry Your Lawyer in a small civil ceremony before a local judge. You think of inviting your son but he is probably too busy; he has taken up archery and the Football Coach has told you he competes most weekends. Put your house on the market and move into Your Lawyer’s penthouse flat in an historic downtown building. Reclaimed hardwoods, dormered windows and a bit of taxidermy in every room. Hire a manager to run your cleaning business at a loss so you can spend more time at Kingswood Bay. Take up tennis seriously, golf recreationally, and sailing socially.
Sometimes, at the country club, you join Your Lawyer for cocktails in the bar and catch him standing real close to the judge’s young wife. She wears shoes that cost at least as much as yours and smiles, tilts her ear closer to his face. Try to befriend her for your own protection, but you know it’s the banker’s wife that interests him. She has sensuous lips and long legs and although she lets Your Lawyer light her cigarette she looks at him without any heat, like you used to. When you say you know what he’s up to he shrugs you off. ‘Come on, Baby,’ he says, ‘You’re the one I married.’ She talks incessantly about her daughter the Homecoming Princess Prom Queen Soccer Captain. Probably she doesn’t tell these stories when they’re in bed together.
During the annual weekend regatta, he sails with the judge while you sail with the banker. Use the time away to cosy up to the banker’s guest, a venture capitalist from out of town. He has dark curls and a brown fleck of color in one green eye that you can’t stop looking at. Your Lawyer’s eyes haven’t fascinated you in this way for some time. Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe you should rein your desire instead spurring it on; maybe you should get out of the saddle before you run off a cliff. Maybe you should but you won’t. That night, after everyone is properly drunk and Your Lawyer is whispering in another woman’s ear, lure the Venture Capitalist to the boathouse and fuck him standing against the wall, among the ropes and buoys.
Of course Your Lawyer is at the center of a group of gorgeous women when you return to the party. Catch his eye and blow him a kiss from across the green. Rattle the ice in your empty cocktail glass and raise your eyebrow, as if to say, ‘Would he like another drink?’ Of course he would, so take him one.
It turns out that like you, the Venture Capitalist has quite a bit of free time. Sometimes he comes to your house but other times he asks you to meet him in a windowless bar where blue light murmurs from the television in the corner and ghostly patrons hunch over their drinks in the middle of the afternoon. Other times in a motel along the interstate. During sex he regards your body with hooded eyes, manipulates your limbs with a proprietary authority. The contrast between this prurience and Your Lawyer’s gentle attentions excites you, so sex with Your Lawyer improves as well. You feel terribly sexy. So sexy, and so terrible, that you become careless and one afternoon you forget that Your Lawyer is golfing, not working, and he comes home early and catches you in bed with the Venture Capitalist.
Given the circumstances, the divorce is quite messy.
Go to Vegas with the Venture Capitalist. Marry him in the Elvis Chapel wearing a sleeveless black dress with clean lines and a string of pearls. That night in your room at the Tropicana he approaches your bed with one arm held behind him, concealing, you think, a wedding present. A token of his affection. But then he swings it high in a single fluid motion, the heft of it countering his bodyweight, his other arm rising to meet it, hands clasped overhead, looking down at you like a man suspended from a rope. As the axe comes down your whole life flashes before your eyes, just like people say. Many other things come together in your mind, like, how you’ve never been to his house, or met his family, or seen his driver’s license. How he called you by another woman’s name and then wouldn’t tell you who she was. Also: the rough sex, the credit card with his ‘brother’s name’ on it, his twelve year-old American car. Roll off the bed like a ninja and while he’s wresting the axe from the mattress hit him over the head with the bedside lamp. Keep swinging until the lamp breaks and his head is a bloody mess.
There will be a trial, but when it turns out he was wanted in four states and has left a trail of bodies across the country, you will achieve a fair amount of notoriety for having disposed of him. You are acquitted.
Take a long vacation to a remote island off the coast of Portugal.
At the island resort, practice yoga every morning and every evening on a breezy pavilion with a view of the ocean. Eat spelt waffles and fresh raspberries, endive drizzled in walnut oil, and grilled black bass caught that same day. Spend your afternoons by the pool, and during the second week of your stay, meet an aging Rock Star from a world-famous group. He is staying there before beginning his final tour. His music on the radio takes you back to the rhythm of the mop as you sloshed water over someone else’s floors, years ago. He is older now, with shorter hair, but he still has the rangy vitality that looks good behind a lead guitar. In the evenings after dinner he plays acoustic versions of his old hits for you by the pool, the notes dip and rise on the breeze like hovering seagulls. Give him your number when he asks, but don’t believe him when says he’ll call.
Return home and start cleaning houses again to supplement the money you have left from the settlement with Your Lawyer. Scrub and sponge and splash foaming water from your bucket as if you might rinse away your past. Be surprised when the Rock Star calls to tell you he is touring in your city. Accept the tickets and go to the concert alone. Stand up front in the crush of the crowd, watching his muscular fingers play up and down the neck of his guitar. He is silhouetted in verdant blue stage lights like a giant, like some kind of angel, playing just for you.
After the concert go backstage and party with the band. You are surprised by how freely they smoke and drink and snort cocaine, but your Rock Star seems comparatively sober, and you spend the evening with him in a corner of the room, talking earnestly and drinking expensive whiskey out of short glasses. Stumble to his hotel room and make out like teenagers.
Just as you begin to wonder why hasn’t tried to fuck you he will get up and fumble around in his suitcase. The thin rattle of pills in a plastic bottle as he returns to bed. ‘Fifteen minutes,’ he says. ‘Twenty, max.’ He kisses your belly, your hipbone, the top of your thigh.
As he starts to go down on you, say, ‘Was that–?’
In the morning, he asks you to tag along on the tour. Don’t. At least think it over, maybe join him in another city, another time. Yes, he’s a rock star, but you don’t love him.
While on tour, drink too much and experiment with drugs, a little. You don’t like the cocaine, but the hallucinogens are interesting. In Tahoe after a show he spies a sweet wedding chapel in a grove of pines off the strip. When he wants to go in, tell him no. That you’ve never married a Rock Star may seem like reason enough to follow him, but in the morning, when he announces to everyone getting on the bus that you’re his bride, this logic will have escaped you.
It’s both sweet and flattering, the excitement he constantly expresses about being married to you. Until you realize how much coke he’s using. Finish the tour and promise you’ll stand by him as you check him into a rehab facility deep in the Santa Catalina mountains, where mesquite trees shade the sandy spaces between whitewashed adobe buildings. When you visit, he clings to you with watery eyes, thanking you for taking care of him, swearing he’s giving up the business forever. Pat his thin shoulder and try to find the right words. Wish yourself dead until you meet a Silver Fox in a dark suit and bold tie in the elevator at the facility. He looks familiar. Smile feebly at him, and feel solidarity in his struggle to smile back. Nod at his bulging briefcase and say, ‘Catching up on your filing?’ Breeze through the elevator doors at the sound of the bell, leaving him smiling behind you, but for real now.
Find out later, when you see him alone in the dining room, that he is a Senator from a mid-western state, visiting a close friend in treatment. Don’t say too much about the Rock Star, but do say, ‘I’d love to,’ when The Senator suggests you might like to hear about the latest legislative developments over dinner in town. Over sustainable salmon with piquillo peppers discover that he is fastidious and easily flustered. You find this charming. Offer him herbed risotto from your fork. When he declines, place the morsel in your mouth and close your eyes while he stares. Eye his steak and ask, ‘How’s yours?’ but before he can answer spear a bite off his plate.
Give the Senator your phone number and a peck on the cheek in the back of his limo. When you get back home, decide the Rock Star is really better off without you and write him a warm letter telling him it was all a mistake to begin with.
Have this one annulled.
Carry on a rather formal courtship with The Senator. He flies you all over the country, and everywhere he takes you, people know and respect him: charity galas, political events, golf tournaments. He owns a tuxedo, offers you his arm and introduces you to important people. His refusal to spend the night at your house, or to even have sex on the sly at a discreet hotel seems part of some moral code you cannot decipher. There are appearances to consider. Don’t talk about the past other than to explain that you have become estranged from a child you had when you were little more than a child yourself. Stop cursing. He tells you he is a Christian, which apparently means he wants to get married before you have sex.
After your wedding night, wonder why you were in such a hurry to get married again. Within six months you are nursing a strong suspicion that he is gay. It takes a month or two more before you discover his affair with his Chief of Staff. Refuse to stand next to him at the podium when he is outed by The Post. Receive a nice settlement for your discretion during the divorce.
You meet An Astronaut in line at the post office and marry him, too, but eventually he flies to the moon and leaves you behind. Via satellite telecom he begs you to join him but you simply cannot leave the earth. Not yet.
‘I have no training,’ you say. He says he’ll pull some strings.
‘But what will I do there?’
‘Collect moon rocks. Watch the beautiful blue earth rise and set each day.’
Sigh and tell him, ‘I don’t think that’s enough.’
Despondent over your loss of the Astronaut, put on the crystal pumps and Your Lawyer’s dress and go to a fancy hotel downtown. Stay up late eating spicy peanuts and drinking icy gin and tonics alone at the bar. Swivel on your stool with a nod of thanks when a man at corner table sends you a drink. He is fine-boned and pale; he lifts his glass and smiles behind closed lips. His black hair shines as if lacquered and the buttons on his suit glint sharply in the candlelight. Join him; he is a prince from an obscure protectorate somewhere in Eastern Europe.
Become a princess.
The Prince gives you your own wing of apartments in the castle, a small staff of servants, and a crown of platinum filigree inlaid with star sapphires and translucent emeralds. Become rapidly accustomed to the steaming coffee that arrives on a tray each morning, the way your bed is made and your dirty laundry disappears. After breakfast in bed a servant girl fastens you into acres of fabric with columns of buttons, hooks and eyes and laces that you can’t reach. This is harder to get used to. Catch glimpses of her and others scrubbing the stone floors and polishing the winding banisters in their comfortable clothes. You are almost envious. Almost. Mope around the castle grounds. The Prince is kind, but his hands are too small and too soft, like a woman’s. This bothers you. Dread his visits to your apartments each evening. His touch has become an irritation and he expects sexual favours that you are not inclined to give.
But he will give you a gleaming black horse in an effort to win back your affection. Run her daily, deep into the foggy blue hills surrounding the castle. Come back later and later each day. The Prince decrees that if your attitude doesn’t improve he will take back your horse and your clothes and have you sent to the kitchen to sweep the cinders. That evening, in the cold light of the lowering sun ride beyond the fog and into a dappled wood, where you discover a humble cottage in a clearing. Outside the cottage a Woodcutter with broad shoulders and a fiery beard looks up from his work.
He doesn’t speak your language, but somehow you understand each other. Allow him to help you dismount your horse, pour you some wine, and roast you a rabbit. While he’s cooking, slip into the other room and remove the layers of crepe and crinoline you are wearing and leave them in a magnificent heap on his dusty plank floor. Wrap yourself in a thick wool jacket and some drawstring trousers you find hanging from a hook on the wall and appear at the Woodcutter’s table, ravenous and refreshed.
Drink too much wine from a wooden cup. Giggle helplessly when he sweeps you into his arms and carries you to his bedroom. He is an attentive lover and his hands are strong. Stay with him. Spend a blissful fortnight eating roasted meat and potatoes from his garden, brown bread with butter, and making love. Tell yourself stories about the life you would have, if you stayed, about the children you would have, if you stayed, and how you would mother them. Stay as long as it lasts. Because it cannot last.
The Woodcutter is a master hunter; he teaches you to kill a rabbit with a bow and arrow from the back of your running horse. Ride each afternoon through the shadowy forest, impaling the hearts of trees from ever-greater distances. Return one evening to find the Prince and his henchmen in front of the cottage, questioning your Woodcutter. Hide at the edge of the clearing and listen as he lies to protect you. The Prince does not go inside, where your dress hangs in the Woodcutter’s bedroom and your jewelry lies in a sparkling jumble on the mantelpiece.
After the Prince leaves, you will find the Woodcutter in his bedroom. The wardrobe is open, the fabric of your discarded dress between his rough fingers. Stand in the doorway and look into his eyes from across the room.
Cry when he makes love to you. Keep him awake until the moon has set, and then, in the pale light of earliest morning, slip out of bed while the Woodcutter sleeps. Retrieve your ridiculous dress from his wardrobe and put it on next to the cold fire in the kitchen. Tear a small piece of flannel from his shirt and tuck it between your breasts before taking your bow and arrow and tiptoeing out the front door. Whistle softly for your horse.
Stay close to the Woodcutter’s cottage. Watch the trees carefully. When the Prince returns, approaching the cottage under cover of the forest with a small band of armed soldiers on horseback, let an arrow fly into their midst and lodge—thwock!—in a slender tree inches in front of the Prince’s regal nose.
As you fly through the trees, it is impossible to tell whether they are shooting high or you are actually dodging arrows. Push your horse to the top of a ridge and turn. Watch the riders pound up the slope after you. The men come like shadows, like memory, warring for position in the crush of heaving bodies, advancing upon you as one. Feel the wind in your hair as you draw your last arrow, fit it into your bow and take careful aim. When he falls from his horse clutching his chest do not wait to see what his henchmen will do. Do you regret that there was no time to marry the Woodcutter? Spur your horse, keep riding. Never look back.
This story is on the shortlist for The White Review Short Story Prize. The winner will be announced on 25 April 2013.