1. The girl is promised to the Devil.
2. She sweeps around an apple tree. We think of Milton’s hunger and thirst, of the beasts that stood and longed but could not reach. We are comfortable in our office chairs; we have time to think these things. The girl sweeps. She has not yet said anything.
She knows he is coming. She washes herself. She draws a white circle around herself and waits. She weeps until her hands are clean.
Chop off her hands, says the Devil. How can I, says the father.
If you do not, you are mine, says the Devil, and I will get you myself.
Do with me what you will, says the pure girl, for I am your child.
You have done me so much good, the father says. For the rest of your life, I will hold you most precious.
The word we translate precious more often means delicious.
3. I can’t stay here, she says; I’ll go. Sympathetic people will give me what I need. The German word for sympathy means to suffer with.
She binds her stumps and finds a garden with a moat.
She stands and longs, but cannot cross the water, cannot reach the fruit.
An angel dries the moat so she can reach a pear.
The German word for pear is also used in the word for demolition ball, for light bulb, and, colloquially, for the noggin.
Use the pear God gave you, we might say.
She stretches up and bites down, hard.
4. Who ate my pear? says the king.
It was a ghost, says his gardener.
The king marries the ghost.
5. The king has silver hands made for his wife. The hands are polished daily, Anne Sexton adds, and kept in place.
We wonder what position they’re sculpted in. Lest she put out her hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat of it, and live forever—
Clenched or folded? She might scoop up a child or balance a fork, but not for long.
In pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.
The king leaves for war before the child is born.
6. The Devil intercepts the king’s letters to his mother, and the mother’s letters to the king.
The girl can’t write.
7. The girl and her son flee into a wood. There she finds a cottage with a sign.
Everyone who lives here is safe, says the sign in English.
Everyone who lives here is free, says the sign in German.
There is no good translation for the name she gives the child: Filled-with-Grief is one attempt. Pain-bringer is another. Or Pain-rich. Or Pain-empire.
Her hands grow back.
8. Everyone who lives here is safe, reads the King from the sign on the door after seven years of searching. For seven years, he has eaten nothing.
Everyone who lives here is free.
I thought God was my father, says Pain-bringer.
My wife has silver hands, says the King, who does not know her until she brings them out.
9. He marries her again.
Each morning, as he has always done, he counts the fruit on the trees in his garden.