Rumpel’s Gift

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Commander Annie and Other Adventures, November 2023

“As the blood and teardrops mixed with the sound of Heidi’s urgently whispered cursing, an electric chill filled the room. Heidi looked up to see a man standing in the doorway.”

Each stitch was a nightmare.  Heidi stabbed her fingertip, jamming the pointy needle through the unruly fabric.  Sometimes the fabric bunched up into a stiff, impenetrable clump under the needle’s point.  Other times, the needle sailed through… only for Heidi to find she’d accidently sewn two layers of the ballgown together.  Then she had to rip the stitches out, taking her further from the finish line.

Heidi clutched the slippery golden fabric in her fists.  She was too proud to cry.  Too angry to cry.  Too short on time to cry…

Heidi had never seen her fourteen-year-old daughter, Clara, happier than when she’d received the email from the casting director saying she’d got the lead.  The princess.  The plum role.  Her little girl had beamed.  She’d truly looked like a Cinderella, picked by the prince to be lifted from her station into true royalty.  And why wouldn’t she?  It had been her first audition, and she was only a freshman.  Who could have ever expected her to get the lead?

Or that the lead came with volunteering requirements from her family…

“Volunteering requirements.”

Heidi couldn’t think of any more hateful oxymoron right now.

The play was tomorrow night, less than twenty-four hours away, and the costume wasn’t done.  Clara was in her room, sound asleep, resting up for the big performance.  From the glimpses Heidi had seen of the after-school rehearsals, she was a star.

But that star would be wearing the same t-shirt and jeans she’d been rehearsing in for the big show, unless her mother could suddenly learn how to sew.

Damn her progressive high school and high powered college, where all she’d studied was science and math, preparing her perfectly for her career as a bio lab tech.  And left her woefully unprepared for all of the little extras that parents are expected to do.  There wasn’t anything Heidi hated more than the parents who made cute homemade lunches, complete with sandwiches shaped like dinosaurs and lunch sacks with little cartoons hand drawn on them.  WHO HAS TIME TO DRAW CARTOONS ON BROWN PAPER LUNCH SACKS?

Now Heidi really was crying.  The gold fabric darkened where the tears hit, and Heidi noticed there were smudges of blood from where she’d pricked her finger.  Damn, damn, damn.

As the blood and teardrops mixed with the sound of Heidi’s urgently whispered cursing, an electric chill filled the room.  Heidi looked up to see a man standing in the doorway.  For an instant, she thought it was Clara come to check on her, because no one else should be in her house.  Yet, there he stood, skin slightly greenish, eyes bulgy and liquid, with a wide nose.

“Do you need help, m’lady?” the man asked, followed by a high-pitched, trilling giggle.

“Why?  Are you Rumpelstiltskin?” Heidi asked, agog.  Had she fallen asleep?  Was she dreaming a fairy tale?  “If so, I already know your name.”  Now Heidi started giggling.

The greenish man waved one of his long-fingered hands.  “Of course, but I don’t care about that anymore.  I’m used to the sound of my name.”  He walked forward, reached down, and ran the golden hem of the dress through his fingers.  “I do still care about gold.  And sewing.”  He smiled winningly at her.  Well, it would have been a winning smile if he hadn’t looked quite so much like a frog.  “I’m quite good at it, you know.”

“So I’ve heard,” Heidi observed wryly, hoping that this froggy man wasn’t going to ask her to kiss him.  “I’ve also heard you exact a steep price.”

“Your firstborn, yes.”

“You can’t have my firstborn,” Heidi said.  “First of all, that’s barbaric.  And secondly, we’re not talking about some abstract baby who I may never have.  We’re talking about my fourteen-year-old daughter.”

“The one who got you into this situation?”  That high-pitched giggle again.  It made her think of the trilling of a tree frog.

“Clara’s a good kid,” Heidi said, knowing the words were wholly inadequate for capturing how incredibly sweet and thoughtful Clara could be to her friends; how fiercely independent and powerful she was, a force to be reckoned with.  Heidi admired that in her daughter.  She also hated being the one who had to daily reckon with her.

She could picture how badly tomorrow morning — only a few hours away now — might go if the golden ball gown wasn’t done.  She could hear the echoes of Clara’s last tantrum ring in her ears, and that had only been over a disagreement about whether the girl could use her computer for an extra half hour after bedtime.

A bedtime that came and went during the argument over it.  Heidi had ended up password locking the computer as a punishment. A punishment that had backfired when Heidi had found herself regularly interrupted for the rest of the week, called on to come unlock the computer for various school-related internet searches or email checks.

Somehow Clara always found a way to make punishing her more work than just letting her have her own way.

“A good kid?” Rumpelstiltskin repeated.  “Is that all the praise you have for your only daughter?”

Heidi’s cheeks burned, and her tongue failed her.  She loved her daughter.  She did.  But the girl was also difficult.  “I don’t have to defend myself to you.”

Rumpelstiltskin took the needle from Heidi’s hand, his fingers brushing against hers.  He re-threaded it and poked the point through the golden fabric.  His fingers moved so swiftly, so deftly.  “You don’t.  But you do need my help if you want to get this done.”  No giggles now.  With a needle and thread in his hand, Rumpelstiltskin was all seriousness.

“But I can’t…”  Heidi started crying again.  The movement of Rumpelstiltskin’s hands against the fabric were mesmerizing.  So quick.  So skilled.

“I won’t hurt her, you know.”  He took the needle and pressed it back into Heidi’s hand.  He was done sewing.  Unless she made an unthinkable deal.

“What will you do with her?”

“Nothing much.  Just take her to Fairy Land.”

“Fairy Land,” Heidi repeated.  Maybe she was dreaming.  “What’s it… like there?”  She couldn’t believe she was asking such a ridiculous question.

Rumpelstiltskin smiled.  This time his smile was so beatific, so warm, so genuine…  It was like sunshine had spilled over him, and he was basking in the warmth.  “It’s an endless summer day, filled with joy and wonder.”

“That nice, huh?”  Heidi was skeptical.  She didn’t want to be having this dream. But then, before she’d started dreaming, her life was a nightmare.  She couldn’t face her daughter in the morning without this costume finished.  And she’d already looked all over town, trying to find something — anything — in Clara’s size that could suitably pass for a princess’s ballgown.  But the clothing available for girls in their early teens was uniformly terrible.  Heidi was out of options.

“Clara will be safe and happy in Fairy Land.  I promise you.”

Heidi knew she should know better than to accept promises from strange men who appeared in her house unasked in the middle of the night.  But what did it matter if it were all a dream?

She held the dress toward him and handed back the needle.  “I accept.  You can have my daughter, just wait until after the play is over before you take her.  I want to see her perform in that play, wearing this dress.”

“As you wish.”  Rumpelstiltskin grinned like a cat with cream in its whiskers.  Or maybe a frog who’d caught a dragonfly.

Heidi fell asleep in her chair, watching his deft fingers work.


Heidi awoke to squeals of joy.  Clara pulled the costume off her lap, where it must have fallen when she’d finished sewing it.  Had she finished sewing it?  Heidi couldn’t remember.  The whole previous night had been a blur of tears, snapped threads, and brokenhearted frustration.  She’d felt like a rabbit trapped in a snare.

But there the dress was — golden and perfect, flouncing in her daughter’s arms as Clara danced the dress gaily around the room.

“Thank you thank you thank you!” the girl cried in a rush.  She already had her backpack on, ready for the bus, and she folded the dress over one arm as she headed for the door.  “Don’t forget to charge your phone!” she said.  “I want lots of videos of me in the play!”  The door slammed behind her.

Heidi lurched her way to her bedroom, crashed on the bed, and slept straight through lunch.  She was still tired when she dragged herself to the lab to try to cram a full day’s work into half of a day.  She did remember to charge her phone before leaving for the play.  Barely.

As Heidi sat in the audience, surrounded by other parents whispering to each other and younger siblings squirming, she felt nervous for her daughter.  Heidi had never been comfortable speaking to a crowd.  She hoped Clara wouldn’t freeze and embarrass herself.  Embarrass both of them.

Then the lights went down.  When Clara stepped onto the stage in her golden ball gown, the entire universe felt like it finally came into alignment.  Clara was a star, and Heidi loved her, orbiting and worshipping from afar.  Even when Clara was in the background of a scene, she never broke character.  She glowed.  She twisted up her face at the right moments to elicit waves of laughter from the audience.  Every move Clara made was perfect.  Heidi had never felt more proud or in love.

After the play ended, Heidi watched Clara bow and laugh and mingle with admiring members of the audience, accepting compliments.  But as the moment when they’d leave the auditorium, go out to the car, and drive home grew nearer, Heidi felt a nameless dread rising inside her.

It had to be nameless.  Because the only name she could place on it was ridiculous.


Yet there he stood, leaning against the car in the mostly empty school parking lot, looking even more green in the sickly light from the streetlamps.

“How was the play?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, followed by his unnerving giggle.

“Perfect!” Clara beamed.

Heidi put her arm out, blocking her daughter, and she stopped walking toward the car.  “You can’t–” she started, but then she looked over and saw the horror on her daughter’s face.  All she wanted to do was hold her and protect her forever.  “I’m so sorry,” she said.  “So, so sorry.  I’ll fix it.”  She looked back at Rumpelstiltskin and insisted, “Take me instead.”

Rumpelstiltskin raised his arm, and bolts of lightning shot from his fingertips, swirled, and coalesced into a flickering portal of light.  The swirling slowed like ripples soothed into glass-clarity on a pond’s surface, and through the portal, Heidi saw green hills, a windmill, and a forest in the distance.  Unicorns gamboled on the hills; a dragon swooped through the sky.  It looked beautiful.

But she couldn’t let her daughter go.  Clara had a whole life to live here.  Heidi would give her own life up to protect that.  She looked back at her daughter, preparing to say goodbye, but the confusion in Clara’s eyes stopped her.

“What did you mean,” Clara asked, “that you’d go instead?  Instead of who?”

“Instead of you.”  Heidi placed a hand on either side of Clara’s face, trying to memorize every detail.  She’d never see her daughter as an adult, never know how her face lengthened or filled out.  What a terrible mistake she’d made.

“But… you’re already the one who’s going,” Clara said.  “I…”  She looked away, ashamed.  “I promised you to Rumpelstiltskin if he got me the lead in the school play.  I didn’t think it would work.  I didn’t think he’d come back.”

Heidi wanted to be outraged.  But… she’d made a very similar deal, and she was old enough to know better.  She’d simply been so very tired…

“I mean, I’m only a freshman,” Clara said.  “They’d never have given me that role otherwise.  And I was perfect for it!”

“You were,” Heidi agreed.  “So now what do we do?”  She looked back at Rumpelstiltskin who had been watching their touching moment bemusedly.

“I think…”  Clara hazarded.  “We go to Fairy Land together?”

“Bingo!”  Rumpelstiltskin giggled and pointed through the portal with a flourish.  “Off you go!”

Heidi took her daughter’s hand and led the way through the portal.

Read more stories from Commander Annie and Other Adventures:
[Previous] [Next]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *