Upon her inheritance of a great fortune from a distant uncle who had favored her when she was but a toddler, the woman, named Gilda, had immediately adopted a lavish style of living. Thereafter, she and her husband and their two children abided first in comfort and then in opulence. When one of her less fortunate cousins came asking to share in a small portion of the riches, Gilda agreed, but only if he earned the portion, by being in her employ. He became her carriage driver. And he was driving her home one day to her countryside manor, when a sudden obstruction appeared, and he drew back the reins to halt the carriage.
He dropped to the ground to investigate and found that he had almost struck an old man covered in an oversized cloak. The old man seemed out of sorts, startled perhaps by the horses. The carriage driver guided the old man to the side of the road. He checked the old man for injuries and found none. And yet, he pulled a bag from his pocket and shook out two gold coins. For he noticed that the old man’s cloak was worn and faded, and guessed that the old man might be lacking in good fortune.
But as he was holding his hand out toward the man, he heard a voice cry, “Stop!”
The carriage driver turned and saw his cousin—and his employer—step out of the carriage. Gilda was dressed in a riding suit of rich and delicate material, violet in color, and rather than a cloak, she wore a long and loose coat of purple velvet. She swept toward the two men.
“Do you offer this intruder my gold coins? He almost caused the carriage to tip.” She frowned at the old man.
“You may deduct it from my wages, if you please, cousin.”
“I forbid it. I happened to be gazing out of the window, and I saw this man rush out into the road. The fault was his.”
“Please madam,” the old man said, holding out his hand. “Just this one time.”
“One time will lead to many,” Gilda said. She ordered the carriage driver to return to his seat, and she watched him go to ensure that he did not slip the old man any coins.
She then climbed to the seat beside the driver to ensure that he did not toss the old man any coins as they departed.
“Let it be so,” the old man said, watching them calmly as the carriage driver guided the horses back to the middle of the road. “But beware that you cling too tightly to your riches, madam. For gold likes best to glitter in the light, and if you confine it, it will seek to fly away. Your treasure will turn against you.”
“So says one who has no treasure,” Gilda said. “Your words are as empty as your pockets.”
The old man raised his voice, for the carriage was now moving away. “A necklace is a noose and a ring is a sting. What is yours is yours no more. You have lost everything.”
It happened when they had almost reached home. Gilda was back inside the carriage. She began to feel an intense and stifling heat and called out to cousin to stop the carriage. Just as it came to a stop, she flung open the door and jumped out. She felt a searing heat just below her throat, and when she touched her throat, her hand came to lay on her necklace of gold and polished emeralds. She unclasped the necklace and removed it. But as she held it aloft, the necklace began to writhe. It grew thicker. The fine gold links turned to fine scales. With a cry, she dropped the necklace. And it slithered away. For it had transformed into a serpent.
Before she could recover herself, the rings upon her fingers began to burn. She held her hands out before herself, and moved to pull the rings off. But as she did, the gold rings transformed into golden wasps. She waved her hands to shoo them and they stung her before flying off. She managed to squash one of them in the palm of her hand, quite by reflex. When she opened her fist, the dead golden wasp that was once a gold ring, burst into a golden flame and vanished.
The earrings that dangled from her ears next began to burn. The bracelet of diamonds around her right wrist began to burn. Gilda did not hesitate. With a cry, she pulled it all off, all of her remaining jewelry. She tossed it all to the ground and watched in horror as each piece transformed into some kind of stinging or biting creature before slithering, crawling, or buzzing away.
The carriage driver, her cousin, watched in helpless amazement. His gaze dropped to her feet, for he knew that she wore anklets. Indeed, they were still wrapped around her ankles. Gilda’s gaze followed his own, and she knelt down to remove the anklets and toss them away before they too came to life and tried to poison her. The anklets transformed into thin silvery snakes and slithered away once free of their former master.
“What has happened?” Gilda asked, between rapid, heavy breaths.
“A curse, cousin.”
Gilda glanced over at the carriage driver. She frowned. “What?”
“Don’t you remember what the old man said? The one we almost ran over? ‘A necklace is a noose and a ring is a sting.’ He warned you that your treasure would turn against you.”
On any other day, Gilda would have scolded her carriage driver for his foolish notions. But she had seen with her own eyes what had become of the jewelry she had been wearing. Not a single piece, not even the smallest of her rings was spared.
Gilda hopped back onto the carriage and told her cousin to make haste. A desperate feeling had begun to churn in her stomach, as she pictured the family vault in the basement of their home, where lay all the treasures she had inherited from her uncle, and all the treasures she herself had collected from the spending of that inheritance.
On reaching home, Gilda once again hopped out of the carriage without aid, and before the carriage had come to complete stop. She flew past the servants who were waiting to take her coat and hand her a refreshing towel and a drink, according to her usual custom.
She rushed through the foyer and the main hallway to the back of the house, to the door leading down to the basement. She wore the key to that door on her person. The only copy was with her husband always. She fumbled to open the door and to trigger the lantern lights, and she nearly tumbled down the steps. In such a rush was she that she had not bothered to close the door behind her.
Some of the treasures that lay within the chamber were still present. Portraits whose frames had yet to be polished before they could be mounted on the walls, or ones that Gilda simply did not favor. An antique chair that had been part of her bequest. An entire shelf of richly ornate books.
Gilda dared to feel some hope that the rest of her treasure was likewise still there. But she also noted that all the things that were still present were things that she did not truly treasure. Her husband had entreated her to put those things in the vault. Gilda had been meaning to sell them.
In the farthest corner, there lay a chest, a true treasure chest. Most of her inheritance lay in that chest. It was full of gold coins. She approached the chest. She unlocked it.
Hesitantly, she lifted the lid. Something came flying out toward her. Gilda recoiled and stepped back. Many more things came flying out, and the force of their flight pushed the lid all the way open. Hundreds upon hundreds of golden birds rushed out of the treasure chest. The birds—canaries—sang and swirled around the room above her head, and they flocked toward the open door.
“No!” Gilda cried, and she tried to run past them up the stairs to close the door. But she was driven back down the stairs by the force of their flapping and the painful pitch of their singing.
From the bottom of the stairs, Gilda watched as her fortune flew away.
Before she could feel the first stirrings of despair, Gilda remembered the special gifts that she had given to her husband and to each of her children. A gold watch. A necklace. A ring. Those gifts were now cursed, and probably harming her family. Gilda rushed to her children’s rooms to check on them. But they were not in their rooms. She searched for her husband, but could not find him either. She ran through the house, asking the servants if they had seen the children or her husband. But whenever she went to wherever they were last seen, she did not find them there. She had taken the family’s only carriage. If the three had gone anywhere, it would have been on foot.
One of her servants stopped her and noted the terrible welts on her neck and hands, the wounds inflicted by the treasure. Gilda felt the pain of those wounds, but they were distant and dull. A sharper pain struck her now, a tight throbbing in her heart, and with each throb, a shard of agony pierced her chest.
The household servants gathered around her. They had surmised that something was amiss. They had begun searching for the master of the house and the children of the house. But Gilda knew that they would not find her husband and children. She went in search of the one person who might help her, for he had been with her when calamity fell upon her.
“We must find the old man, cousin,” the carriage driver said. “I will do it. It’s late and you must rest—“
“I’ll go with you,” Gilda said. And she was glad that he did not protest, for she did not have the energy to argue against him or anyone.
Her cousin ordered the household servants to keep searching for the missing family members, while he and Gilda went in search of the one who was responsible for their present misfortune.
Gilda feared that the old man was long gone. He was a vagabond. He might have found someone to let him ride their carriage. Some foolish person with a warm heart and a cold mind. Who could guess how such folk managed to stay alive despite their reckless kindnesses.
Or perhaps there was no old man. Perhaps it was some fairy or otherworldly spirit they had encountered. Perhaps had cursed Gilda and fled back to its native realm, never to be seen by human eyes again.
Gilda pushed such thoughts away, but they kept intruding and crowding upon and suffocating her calmer thoughts.
But this was one fear she need not have indulged. Upon returning to the closest town to the southeast, the direction from whence they’d come, the carriage driver made some inquiries. He found some prospects and found the old man upon searching the second inn that had been mentioned to him.
Gilda had never been so glad to see another person in her whole life. She nearly rushed forth to embrace the old man, so relieved was she, so keen was her need and her hope. Tears bubbled forth in her eyes. She wiped them away and offered to buy the man some drink, forgetting that she had no money upon her. Luckily, her cousin still had his earnings. He bought the drink, and they all three sat at a table in a chilly corner.
The old man thanked the carriage driver for the drink. He began to engage them in frivolous banter. But Gilda wasted no time.
“Please, I beg of you,” she said. “Reverse the curse you have placed upon me.”
The old man took a sip of his drink and pursed his lips. “But it has not yet been a quarter of a day. Can you not live without your riches for that long?”
“My family has disappeared. My husband and my children. We searched everywhere. They are gone. It was your curse.”
The old man’s brows flinched up. “Indeed. Perhaps I misjudged you somewhat, madam. I had not believed you could treasure anything but your riches.”
“Please, reverse your curse. I’ll pay anything.”
The old man narrowed his eyes. “How will you pay? You have no riches to pay with.”
“If you reverse the curse, I would regain my riches. Then I could pay you.”
“A handsome fee for your mercy.”
“A tenth of your treasure would you give to me?”
“Yes, of course. A tenth.”
“Half, indeed. I would give you half.”
“More than half?”
“All of it!”
“Cousin!” the carriage driver cried. He leaned forward, placing himself between Gilda and the old man. But Gilda did not look at him.
“I would give all of it to you, only bring back my children and my husband.”
The old man sat back. He sighed heavily. “My curses can’t be reversed. They can only be broken. I can do nothing for you now.”
“How do I break the curse, then? Can you tell me that?”
The old man nodded. “There are three ways. You can learn your lesson, whatever that may be. I can’t say. Or you can hope upon true love.”
“And the third way, please?”
“That way is dangerous. It may have unforeseen consequences. But you asked politely this time. I am compelled by my own good manners to answer.” He tipped his head to the left and his eyes caught the twinkle of the lights overhead. “The third way is for you to kill the one who laid the curse.”
Gilda, of course, chose to try one of the first two ways. She believed she had already learned her lesson, that she had let her newfound riches poison her life. She told the old man so, in the hopes that declaring the lesson learned would break the curse. The old man had witnessed the breaking of a curse or two in his time. But when he had, he had witnessed that they were not grand affairs. There was no crack of lightning, no boom of thunder to mark the breaking of a curse. So he advised that Gilda return home to check on her family.
Perhaps out of pity, perhaps out of gratitude for her mercy in not choosing the third option he had presented, the old man promised to remain in town should Gilda need further advice.
She was not surprised when she returned home for the second time that day, weary and sapped of all vitality, only to find that her house was still empty. Her children and her husband were still gone.
She had asked the old man where they could be, whether they were safe. He could not say, for he did not know. The only comfort he could give her was in his near-certainty that all three were together. Gilda trusted that her husband could keep their children safe and that their children could keep their father’s spirits up until she broke the curse.
As the first way had not worked, Gilda had a desperate idea for how she might put her hope in true love.
When she was searching her house for her family, she had noted that her jewelry and many of the things she had treasured in the house—an ornate vase in the foyer, a brilliant painting of waterfalls in the east wing’s main room, a silver pitcher—had all vanished. But the things she did not truly care for had remained. Among these was the simple copper band that her husband had given her to serve as her engagement ring and her wedding ring. This was before she inherited her riches. This copper ring, which she had not worn in years, having had her husband buy her a more extravagant one, had not vanished.
She believed that if she treasured the ring now, by thinking of her husband and their children, it might begin to transform and then slither or crawl or fly away. Only this time, she would not release the ring. She would tie herself to it, and follow it, for wherever it went, her family might have gone. She could find them. And then they could all find their way back home.
For a day, she sat with the ring upon her finger. She had tied a string around the ring, and had tied the other end of the string around her wrist. She had allowed for several feet of slack so that the ring might move freely before her, leading her like a bloodhound sniffing its way to its quarry.
Her servants left her food and they tended to the wounds around her neck and hands. But she only sipped some water, and she only took a bite of cheese.
The day passed without the ring transforming.
Another day passed. And another.
Gilda felt herself growing weaker, for she had eaten and slept little. Her cousin, the carriage driver, came to her then, and he suggested they take a ride to the town to see the old man who had cursed her. Her cousin insisted that she must eat and sleep to prepare for the journey. And so she did.
The old man thought Gilda’s plan of cherishing her first wedding ring until it transformed and led her to her family to be a good plan. But when she told him how many days she had already been trying, he was less hopeful.
“Then I have failed them,” Gilda said, staring at the copper ring on her finger.
She asked the old man again if he could at least tell her that her family was safe, even if they were far from her, even if she might never see them again. But again, he told her the truth. He told her that he could not say.
He sat apart from her, as if worried that the failure of the first two ways meant that Gilda was at last ready to try the third way, as if she would try to kill him. He flinched when she rose and pushed back her chair.
But Gilda merely turned and walked out of the tavern. Her cousin trailed behind her. Having no words of comfort to offer, he said nothing.
And so Gilda listened to the birds singing in the trees as they walked to the carriage.
She remembered how her gold coins had turned into golden canaries who all flew away. They were trapped before, in a wooden chest, barely able to breathe. They must have been happy now, free to fly and to sing. Likewise, her jewels had fled, and even the one that she had managed to “kill” had burned away, erupting in golden flames before vanishing altogether. A magnificent escape for the gems that were caged and bound to the body of a person, gems that once had abided in the eternal earth.
Gilda continued to search for her family, not by means of breaking the curse, but the common way, by traveling through her lands. Having lost all her riches, she relied on the charity of her cousin, who continued to drive the carriage, though he now made his wages by accepting other riders. The longer they traveled, the more Gilda’s will dwindled. She was fortunate that her cousin cared for her. Her cousin, and his new wife, whom he had met along their journeys. They both cared for Gilda.
Months passed, then years. And in time, though she was still sad and would always be sad, Gilda left off her search and settled in the same town where her cousin and his wife settled. When she would see children, the sight pained her at first, but then they brought her some comfort and peace, and soon, they brought her joy and delight, especially her cousin’s children.
Gilda never returned to the home she shared with her husband and her children, but she was able to earn some profit from its sale and the sale of anything of value that was left within. With those profits, she herself learned as much conjury and spellcraft as she could, for she still grasped to a small hope, a calm and quiet hope, that she might be reunited with her family someday.
With her craft, she taught others the lesson that she had not learned until it was too late. She conjured gold coins and bread out of nowhere. Gold coins that would vanish as they were spent, and bread that left nothing but air in the hungry stomach of the one who eaten it. Riches must be earned, she would say. Even when freely given as a gift, riches must be earned. And even when honestly earned, they might vanish. And when her students asked her what then was the worth of amassing riches, Gilda would grin, and begin her true lesson, a lesson that she hoped her students would learn from her words and not—as she had—through their own terrible losses.
“Amass riches if you will,” Gilda would say. “Use those riches—wisely and kindly—if you will. But beware you do not cherish those riches. For riches, while powerful, have no substance. If you cherish only riches, you cherish nothing.”
So too did she teach couples to cherish each other, even in discord, for all the time they were joined, whether that be a few months, a few decades, or a lifetime.
Thus did Gilda spend her days. Some days in joy and some in sorrow. And always she kept that copper ring upon her finger, still tied to her wrist.
One day, many years hence, Gilda was riding in a carriage to visit her cousin, who had moved to another town. His eldest child had reached her eighth year of life, the year of infinite promise. As her cousin had no sisters to stand in the ceremony with his daughter, Gilda had been invited to stand. She felt a swell of joy and honor at the thought of standing beside her niece, to help her light the eight flames of promise.
Suddenly, the carriage stopped with a jerk. Gilda heard a commotion outside. She stepped from the carriage and found that her driver was speaking to someone, someone whom they had almost run over it seemed. Gilda walked forth, ready to help the foot-traveler and to make amends as needed. She patted the pouch full of coins in her coat pocket.
The traveler was a young man, who bowed to Gilda as she approached, and who admitted that he was the one who ran out into the road. As there appeared to be no damage to their carriage, the young man bid them good day and began to walk away. The carriage driver nodded and began to climb back up to his seat. But Gilda called out to the young man. She asked where he was going and offered him a ride.
“Careful madam,” the carriage driver said. He leaned toward her and whispered. “He might be a villain, a cutpurse or worse.”
Gilda laughed. She patted her driver on the shoulder. “How careless of me. You’re right, of course. But I think I know of a way.”
She begged the young man’s pardon, and informed him that she would be riding beside her driver, while the young man enjoyed the carriage to himself. For he seemed a nice fellow, but he was a stranger, and she must protect herself.
“You are kind, madam,” the young man said. “But as I am a stranger to you, you too are a stranger to me. Why, you might kidnap me for nefarious purposes.”
Gilda furrowed her brow. She had not considered that the young man might be threatened by her.
The young man smiled. “I speak in jest, madam—mostly. And I give sincere thanks to your generous offer. But you are not going my way.”
At this, Gilda frowned, for when he had started walking away, before she called out to him, he had been walking in the same direction that she was traveling. He glanced at the road behind her.
Gilda turned around, and when she did, she found that she was standing on a very different road, but a familiar one. Puzzled, she glanced at her carriage driver, only to find that the carriage was now facing the opposite direction, toward the familiar road. And her usual carriage driver was gone. In his place was her cousin, and he too looked different but familiar. She peered at him and realized that he looked much younger.
He peered back at her, “Cousin? Are you all right?”
She spun around again to the young man, only there was no young man there, only an old man, a familiar old man. Gilda had not laid eyes on the man in ten years, but she recognized him. He was the one who had laid the curse upon her. She caught her breath.
The old man raised his hand. “Well done, madam,” he said. “The curse is broken.”
With a gasp, Gilda realized that she was once again adorned with fine jewels and dressed in a fine violet riding suit that almost did not fit her.
She recovered herself and flourished her hand toward the carriage. “Come with me, sir” she said. The old man accepted her invitation and entered the carriage.
She asked her confused cousin to resume their journey home and to make haste.
Gilda did not speak to the old man, nor did he speak to her. She held her right hand out, and gazed at the beautiful rings upon her fingers. They felt strangely heavy now, for she had grown accustomed to only wearing her copper wedding ring. She pulled out the compact mirror that she kept in her purse and looked upon her face. She had not changed. And yet her cousin looked much younger, and she had noted that he did not have a ring upon his finger. She could have asked the old man, but she did not. For she believed she understood, and she would soon see for herself if her understanding was correct.
When they arrived home, Gilda hopped out of the carriage. As she rushed past her servants, she asked them to prepare a room for her guest. She had no need to rush into the house, for she saw them in the front yard.
She saw her children playing.
Gilda stumbled to her knees as she reached them. She grasped them, one in each arm, and pulled them to her in an embrace so fierce that they both screamed and laughed, protesting that she was crushing them.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Gilda exclaimed, and she released them, but took each child’s hand.
They asked her what gifts she had brought them.
“This,” she said. And she pulled them close again, showering them with kisses and tickles until they collapsed to the ground, and then squirmed free of her, and fled.
Gilda let them go, for she knew now that they would not vanish.
Her husband approached by that time, finding her to look different from when he saw her that morning. But Gilda did not hide herself. She embraced him too and kissed him with a passion that she had not felt since the first year of their courting. He reeled back as if dizzied. He shook his head slightly as if to wake himself when Gilda introduced her guest for the evening.
It was almost dinnertime. Gilda called out her thanks to her cousin, who turned from tending the horses and frowned a bit in confusion before smiling and nodding.
While her husband corralled the children before dinner, Gilda finally spoke with the old man.
“There is gray in your hair,” the old man said.
“Leave it there. I have earned every silver strand.”
“Your world is ten years younger. Do you not wish to be as well?”
“I would forget, wouldn’t I? That’s why I am still as I was, or…as I will be? I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to risk losing them again.”
The old man crossed his arms. “Lesson once learned cannot be unlearned. It can only be ignored or heeded. And true love once earned cannot be lost. But it can slumber a while until needed.”
Gilda furrowed her brow. “Is that another curse? Or a blessing?”
The old man shrugged.
“I’ve learned more than one lesson,” she said. And she conjured a gold coin in the palm of her hand, which then transformed into a canary, which then flew away and vanished in a puff of golden dust.
Before dinner, Gilda led the old man down to the basement where she kept her riches. She opened the chest full of gold coins and offered the old man all of them, and all that was contained in that room, and other treasures throughout her home. She would work a trade to earn wages to live upon, much as she had done before receiving her inheritance, and much as she done in the past ten years of her life.
“Keep your treasure, madam,” the old man said. “Find some better use for it than you have thus far.”
Gilda slapped her palm to her forehead as she realized just what better use she could make of it. She would give her cousin half of the treasure, as she should have done when first he came to her door.
As they climbed back up and walked to the front of the house, Gilda invited the old man to join her family for dinner.
“You would feed me at your table after all the harm I have caused you?”
Gilda smiled. “You have indeed caused much harm. I am certain I could have learned this lesson by far gentler means than being robbed of my family. But it is easy now to forgive you. For any ill done to them has been undone. I too caused much harm. And may have caused much more and to those far dearer to me than a vagabond stranger, but for the lesson I have learned.”
To the dinner table, she also invited her cousin. She would wait until after dinner to speak to him about her plans to split her fortune. But she did not wait to tell him that she wished for them to travel to a particular town the following morning.
“It will be as you wish, of course, cousin,” her baffled cousin and carriage driver said. “But what business do you have there?”
Gilda’s wits had calmed enough to remember a little girl, older than her own child, for whom she would stand in ceremony to celebrate eight years of life.
“There are two things of import in that town,” Gilda said. “One is a caramel cake at a small bakery.”
“And the other?” her cousin asked, smiling slightly, as if suspicious of but also encouraged by Gilda’s jolliness.
The love of your life, my brother, Gilda thought. And the mother of my beloved niece.
But she only pointed her fork at him, and said, with a look of exaggerated mischief. “You’ll see.”
Gilda gazed around the table. She had exchanged her lavish wedding ring for her original copper ring, and she noticed that her husband noticed. She could not quite tell if he was pleased, but she would find out. She had not given her children the many toys that she had bought for them along her journey, though they had asked her twice what she had brought them. She told them that she would give them their gifts the next morning. The next morning, she planned on telling them that she would take them with her on her trip. She did not know if they would sulk and cry or be delighted. But it mattered not, for she would find out. She would find out much about her family in the years to follow, through good times and bad.
And she would treasure ever moment.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel