Maggie trudged up the winding steps of the south tower, resentment gurgling in her stomach. Every day for the past 15 years since her father had passed away she had been obliged to carrying out the wearisome task. Every day of the past 15 years, as the big old clock in the hall struck twelve, she filled the copper watering can and climbed the tall stone steps. She was careful, oh so careful, not to spill a drop of the precious sweet well water which was all that must be used. Nothing sullied, nothing tainted, only the very best. Every day for the past 15 years she climbed to the top of the south tower to water a single bloom which her father had nurtured faithfully for as long as she could remember.
No one else could carry out the task. Not the gardener or the gardener’s son. Not the girl from the village who came to tend to her mother’s feet. Or, heaven forfend, the surly housekeeper, who prepared her mother’s meals, but not hers.
Meanwhile, Maggie’s mother sat in splendid isolation on a huge cushion-laden throne, from whence she issued orders and complaints in turn, which fell from her lips like so many leaden marbles, rolling over the stone floors to trip up the unwilling or unwitting. No task was too trivial to escape her notice, as she monitored the household through her all-seeing crystal spyglass. And, despite her great age, she still looked fresh as a daisy, while Maggie herself was beginning to wilt.
Maggie was almost at the top of the south tower. She rounded the last narrowing loop of the steps and arrived at the pinnacle. There was the single bloom. It never changed, never altered, throughout the changing seasons and the succeeding years; its golden face, thrust upwards to the sky, surrounded by a plethora of pink petals. The petals never discoloured or dropped. The single bloom remained, static, unseen, apart from by Maggie and her mother’s crystal spyglass.
Lately, as her knees creaked and her back ached with the climb, Maggie had begun to wonder what would happen if she deviated from the routine. But it was an idle thought. She swallowed her resentment down. Duty must be served.
As she raised the copper watering can, a flock of geese flew overhead, honking noisily. Maggie looked up. If only I were free like them. Her heart yearned to fly away to a world beyond the castle; explore the unknown lands beyond the fields and cottages which she could see from the top of the south tower. If only I were free, she mouthed silently.
Maggie’s back arched unwillingly as she tracked the progress of the snow-white birds. She craned further back; her feet teetered on the topmost step. Arms cartwheeling, she desperately tried to keep her balance. The watering can flew from her outstretched hand. It spun as it fell, spilling a wheeling spray of sweet well water down the wall of the south tower.
With a superhuman effort, Maggie flung herself forward. Her face buried itself in the golden centre of the solitary bloom. Her hands clawed for purchase, pulling out fistfuls of pretty pink petals which showered over the steps. Maggie sank to her knees and steadied herself. Slowly she came up for air. Maggie stared in horror at the ruined solitary bloom. All that remained was a battered bare stalk with a smashed-in face.
Then gradually, as Maggie watched, the squashed centre of the solitary bloom plumped back out again. Features appeared: eyes, nose and mouth. Maggie blinked. The corners of the mouth turned up and rosy blushes appeared on the golden cheeks. Petals sprang out on either side of its face. The head of the solitary bloom turned; it gazed up and down, left and right, settling on Maggie’s open-mouthed stare.
‘You wished to be free,’ it said in a clear and musical voice. Maggie continued to stare. ‘Close your mouth, child,’ it continued.
Child? Thought Maggie. Hardly.
‘I too wish to be free,’ said the solitary bloom, its head bobbing. ‘I have been here for an eternity, marooned on top of this barren tower.’
Maggie rubbed her eyes.
‘We can both be free, Maggie,’ the voice sang. ‘Free as the birds on the wing. Free as the clouds in the sky.’ It threw back its head and laughed. Then it straightened up and gazed intently at Maggie. ‘You can free us both, Maggie.’ It nodded vigorously. ‘Would you like that Maggie?’
Maggie stared, transfixed. Free?
‘Free, Maggie. That’s right.’ The solitary bloom leant towards her and whispered something.
Maggie stood up. She looked around at the fields and cottages below. She looked at the wide blue sky where birds sang and flew. She stretched out her arms and took a deep breath.
‘Go on, Maggie,’ the solitary bloom urged.
Maggie bent down and ripped the solitary bloom from the earth were it grew. She held it aloft, soil cascading from its roots. The solitary bloom let out a great cry. Maggie took up the cry as she leapt from the top of the south tower.
Down below in the depths of the castle, the crystal spyglass started to shake in the old woman’s hand. It reverberated, taking up the sound of the cries coming from the south tower; louder and louder, until the very walls of the castle started to shake. The servants fled from the building and the old woman yelled and cursed on her cushions as the castle crumbled and crashed down around her. Moments later there was nothing but rubble and dust.
High up in the sky two snow white geese honked loudly, flapping their wings in joyous freedom; soon they had disappeared beyond the clear blue horizon.