Once upon a time, I was a little girl with two living parents. My father was a miller, which gave us some standing in the village, and certainly contributed to our house being one of the finest in the area. It was my mother, however, who kept us comfortable, making our house a home.
I was her only daughter, and so she taught me to be a woman in our world: to keep the house snug and clean; to grow and prepare food both nourishing and delicious; to spin and weave and darn. In these ways our family was kept healthy, strong, and whole. And, of course, happy.
But my mother was more than just a woman: she was a wisewoman, and it suited her that I should be, as well. Thus she taught me the names of all things, for as she said, to know the name of a thing is to have some measure of control over it. She taught me the names of the beasts of the field; the birds of the air; and the fish of the stream. She taught me the names of the plants of the wood and the meadow, and all the many stars of the sky. She taught me the names of all the forces that move a man’s heart and a woman’s mind. But most importantly, she taught me the secret names of the good spirits who can be called upon to help in little ways when one is in need.
“Are all spirits good?” I asked her, after she introduced me to the water spirit who generously helped keep our water wheel from growing over-heavy with moss.
“No,” she said solemnly. “Although all those I can teach you to call by name are. And in fact I must warn you, my daughter, that you must never accept aid from a spirit whose name you do not know, for they will always have the advantage over you, and that is a very dangerous thing, indeed.”
One day my mother grew very ill, and because she was a wisewoman, she knew that she would die soon. She called me to her not long after, and pressed something into my hand. I looked and saw it was a long necklace of red yarn, from which hung a spindle in miniature, roughly carved from a bit of pale wood.
“I had thought to have more time to refine it,” she said apologetically, her smile pale and cracked. “I’d intended it as your thirteenth birthday present, but now I know there is no more time, and I hope you will not mind that I give it to you unfinished.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said, and slipped the yarn over my head. “I will treasure it always.”
“Now come closer, my daughter,” she said, “that I may tell you my name.”
“I know your name, mother,” I said, thinking that at last her mind had begun to fail along with her body. “It is Elaine Miller.” My mother smiled again.
“That has been a very good name to me,” she said, “But it is not my true name. If you pray on my grave and then speak my true name, I can come and give you counsel. And a young woman needs her mother’s counsel, I think.” Then she pulled my ear close to her lips, and told me her true name.
“Only use it in your hours of greatest need,” she said, “For I can only be summoned thus three times. But I will love you past forever.”
And then she died.
After that, it was up to me to be the woman of the household, and I did it as best I could, but I did it with a heavy heart, for I missed my mother very much. I would often go to her grave and spin wool, for that helped me to feel close to her. But I never called her true name, for my mother had taught me to be wise, and it is not wise to squander boons.
The years passed, and I grew, and soon boys and men asked to pay me court. But I was perfectly content keeping house for my father, and had no desire for a husband or baby of my own, and so I had my father politely turn all suitors away. He always asked me, “Daughter are you sure? I’ve no desire for you to become an old maid out of concern for me,” but when I pointed out that he could remarry as easily, his eyes would flit to my mother’s ring (worn now on my middle finger). Then he’d hunch up his shoulders, heave a great sigh, and leave me be.
And so we were well-contented with our lives, and comfortable, and happy as two people can be when they’ve lost such a large part of their hearts.
Until the autumn that our millstone broke.