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If she’d asked me for the potion on any other day I’d have handed it over, pressed it into her
hands with my mouth almost crescented, not quite smiling but understanding.
Sometimes they cried, or apologised; I gave them tissues and reminded them I needed no excuses, no explanations. If they didn’t come to me, there were worse places, dark and slimy and deadly. It was safer here, I said.
Her husband came too; they didn’t often. Sometimes they turned up later, once they realised; things clattered their way through my front window amidst the yelling. If it had been any other day. It wasn’t. I had just come in from the graveyard, the annual pilgrimage to that white stone with the too-short dates, and I needed a stiff drink, not the weeping and wailing and pleading.
“No,” I said, my voice coming from somewhere that was not quite my own mouth.
“We’ll do whatever you need,” the husband said. I would have laughed, if there was any air left inside me. “There’s nothing I want from you.”
“There must be something.” He looked around. “We can’t – we simply can’t –” “Give me the child,” I said. Her eyes widened, then, and she nodded before her husband had a chance to interrupt. “You’ll take her in?”
Apparently I would. It was not a thing I had ever asked for, before, ever dared suggest. Ever known that I wanted.
If it had been any other day. I loved her. Right from the beginning, that first day – and I could see it in the woman’s eyes, how she was already tempted to steal back the child, and what hold would I have over her if she did? So I ran, reinvented myself, and I kept her safe. I keep her safe still, even though I know she is of that age when daughters distrust their mothers. That age when, when troubles befall them, they run and hide. They go to dark alleyways and they limp out bleeding and they collapse before there is time to save them, and oh save her I could have, I could have if only she’d told me – but this is my second chance. I know he visits her. I know, but I mustn’t say yet, mustn’t make her feel that she cannot trust me. Another child in this home, for me to care for. I say the words gently, when it becomes clear I must say something, when I am brushing her hair in front of the mirror and her eyes meet mine.
“Your dress has grown tight, Rapunzel,” I say, and she nods slowly, fearfully, and I keep my grip on the fistful of hair and keep brushing.