The booted feet stopped before me as I sat on the ground, hugging my knees. A well-worn, black military boot kicked forward, thumping against my shins. It smarted, but it could have hurt far worse. I looked up at the harried constable. He frowned down at us—a troubled frown, but not an angry one. He was portly and balding, and was a common sight in our part of town. This wasn’t an evil man, but a good man who had been sent out to do an evil task.
“Get up,” he said, his voice so dispirited I almost felt sorry for him.
“Don’t move,” Mama said. It had been her idea that we wedge ourselves hip to hip in the narrow doorway of our shop.
He sighed. “Come now, I don’t like this a bit more than you do.”
“You’ll have to move us,” Mama said.
The constable looked over his shoulder. The fairy hovered there. She was tiny—no larger than my hand— with shimmery pale green leggings and tunic. Her beauty made it difficult to look away.
“Can you move them?” he asked her.
“I am not here to do your job, Constable,” the fairy said, “only to see that you do it honestly.”
The constable’s sigh was exasperated now. He gestured to his men. “Move them.”
Mama and I were both slight. Moving us took no great effort. Suddenly, as I sprawled in the dirt of the street, our defiant gesture seemed pathetic. I could feel the heavy gaze of our neighbors, and like any young maid, I was mortified.
Mama screamed and raised a holy fuss. She went charging back into our shop after the constable’s men. I jumped up and ran in to make sure they didn’t harm her, but I need not have feared. They ignored her as if she were a fly. She hauled on their arms and flailed on their backs as they picked up the spinning wheel and carried it out, and her efforts made little difference.
“My daughter,” she said at one point, grabbing me. “Look at her. Do you think her face will ever get her a husband? That spinning wheel is her future.”
The humiliation of it sent what I knew to be an uncomely flush to my face.
“You will be well-paid,” the constable said, “as soon as it’s destroyed.”
“What about Willard?” I asked my mother, hoping to salvage my injured pride. Willard wasn’t much to look at, but there was no question he was mine.
“Willard!” She snorted in disgust. “I’ll believe he’s willing to marry you when I see you march down the aisle.”
They brought out the spinning wheel and flung it into the back of the wagon. Mama and I both winced as it crashed atop the heap of spinning wheel parts. I had no love for the contraption but had spent many hours dusting the spokes, polishing the surfaces and greasing the axle. The constable’s men, however, had no regard for its fragile structure, its delicate beauty. They had no care that our lives depended upon the simple wooden structure.
The fairy darted out of our shop and hovered near us. She aimed her wand at our spinning wheel and a burst of colors flew out. The colors hit the wheel and buzzed around it like angry bees. When they dissipated, the spinning wheel collapsed into all its various parts, no longer distinguishable from the wreckage surrounding it. I blinked away tears I’d never expected to shed and thought of my fellow spinsters scattered all over the city, mourning, as we did, the loss of our livelihood.
My mother raised her arm to swat the fairy. I grabbed her and hissed. “Remember Widow Harla!” Widow Harla had attacked the fairy with her broom, and she had received the fairy’s vengeful spell. She was still unable to speak.
I felt the tension in Mama’s arm relax. The fairy turned, glared at us and buzzed out of our reach.
The constable offered my mother a chinking pouch. Mama ignored it as she held herself erect. I could tell she was determined to show no weakness. With a glance at the fairy, he tossed it at our feet. I shifted so I stood on the pouch strings. The guards climbed onto the back of the wagon while the constable and the official got in on either side of the driver. They rumbled off down the street, undoubtedly headed toward another spinster who, like us, would dread their arrival.
A few of our neighbors looked at us in pity, but also with a bit of trepidation. They knew that if we were to fall on hard times, they would be obliged to show us Christian charity.
It all made no sense to me. I knew there was a curse involved, but it seemed pointless to attempt to get around it by banning spinning wheels. Fairies were not so stupid as to make their spells so easily circumvented. Why bring misery to families such as ours by taking away our only means of income?
I bent down and picked up the pouch. “What will we do now?” I asked.
Mama took the pouch and hefted it. “We’ll buy a loom. If we cannot spin, we will weave.”
I hid my misgivings. I had no idea how to weave. Neither did she.
I didn’t get any impression that she was as frightened as I was until late that night, when I passed by her room to make use of the privy. I heard a low moaning, so I stopped and listened at the door. It took long moments for me to realize she wasn’t moaning—she was crying. And while she cried, she repeated over and over, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”