The Golden Ball
Victoria limped along a low stone wall towards the village.
She followed the golden ball, which had rolled north when she took it from her pocket and dropped it to the stony ground. Surely here she’d finally meet her destiny. Then she would rest, rejoicing—all the years of struggle would be worth it. She felt excitement, tangled with the familiar thread of despair. She pushed the darkness away, listing instead the time-worn possibilities: a sacred relic, a royal marriage, a powerful position, a hidden treasure, a war won. The golden ball had led her here—to her promised fortune.
The first building she saw was a handsome cottage, well-kept, with a neat thatched roof. The walk was lined with hollyhock and the air smelled of lavender. Gods, how she loved the scent of lavender. That was the last thing she remembered before falling unconscious on the doorstep.
The cottage dweller, whose name was William, was a lavender grower. He tended the wide purple rows in a field that stretched to the horizon. Victoria stayed with him a full week before she felt strong enough to help with the cottage chores. The house was inundated with scent, and Victoria felt euphoric, intoxicated in its spell. Under the scent of lavender was the scent of William, which was also intoxicating.
When she wasn’t busy, Victoria often pulled the golden ball from her pocket, careful never to drop it. When William asked her about it, she told him only that years ago, she’d been a magician’s apprentice and it was his parting gift.
She didn’t tell him that it had been the most beautiful object she’d ever seen—round and brilliant as the sun, shining in Auric’s study; that she’d coveted the golden ball, dreamt about it, and had slunk into his rooms to take it for herself. He’d caught her there, the light illuminating her hungry face as she held it.
She didn’t tell William about the curse the magician laid on her before he threw her out: that if she followed where the ball led, she’d eventually meet her destiny. But until that moment, she’d always be driven on, her body aching with a desire for something she’d never seen.
Victoria stayed a second week with William. She saw how he put care into everything he did. She enjoyed his clever jokes and his laughing eyes. And she liked the way he talked to her, teasing but never rude.
The third week, William asked her, “Autumn is coming. Will you stay and help with the harvest?” In his voice was another, unspoken question.
They were in the garden behind the cottage, looking out at the field edged with golden sunflowers. There was honeysuckle nearby emanating its fragrant nectar, and a trellis of wild grapes, sweet inside their dusted skins. William was pulling up a bucket of cold, clear water from the well and Victoria reached to help him, not knowing how to answer. Fear and joy were so tangled in her heart that she couldn’t speak. As she leaned over the well, the ball slipped from her pocket. There was a single distant splash.
She cried out and William dropped the bucket.
“I think it’s lost for good,” he said, looking down into the darkness.
“No,” cried Victoria. “That’s not possible.”
She took off her boots, unhooked her skirts, and lowered the bucket into the well until the rope ran out. Then she followed it down. The walls were impossibly cold in the dim, slanted light. When she met the water, the sunlight above was no more than a weak candle. But the well was not as deep as she feared and she went under the cold water again and again until her hands closed around the ball. It felt very heavy as she came up, gasping. She called to William and he pulled her up.
“You’re so cold,” he said, putting his arms around her. Then, his voice, concerned, reproachful: “You could have drowned.”
He was so warm, but she couldn’t stop shivering. “I can’t stay,” she whispered against him.
“I don’t understand.” He pulled away to look at her. “Couldn’t you be happy here?”
She shook her head as she had so many times before.
“My destiny is up ahead. I feel it.” True, she sensed something, but it was not what she felt before. It was different and it frightened her. What was this feeling? She gazed at the ball. It looked dark and strange, as if she’d brought up the moon from the well, instead of the sun.
“You won’t stay then,” said the farmer, after a moment. “I see.”
She couldn’t bear to look at the hurt in his face. She stood there silent and shivering, but he did not bring blankets to dry her off.
Victoria put on dry clothes and gathered her belongings from the cottage. She wanted to say goodbye, but she couldn’t form the words. Instead, she stepped onto the road and looked north. William had spoken of a castle , only a few days walk past the village.
She opened her hand and the ball, so cold now, fell to the ground. It bounced once and then it sat there. So many times she’d dropped it and so many times she’d followed where it led, picked it up and put it back in her pocket. So many times she’d tried to lose it, tried to give it away, thrown it in the tall grass of a ditch, but it always appeared again. And always her sense of despair was mingled with relief.
Now it lay in the middle of the road, rolling neither toward the castle, nor south the way she’d come. It didn’t look golden. It was without luster, dusty and scratched. She’d never seen it that way before.
Victoria turned and looked back at the cottage. In her mind she saw the kitchen, drying lavender hanging from the rafters like an upside down meadow. She saw the axe buried firmly in the stump, the wood she’d helped chop and stack, the inviting smoke of the chimney. She saw the pumpkins on their vines beside the low stone wall. And William, standing at the door in the late summer sunshine.
Victoria looked at the long road ahead. She couldn’t see it, but it was there—the destiny that would win her fame and fortune and unravel the tangled knot of her heart. She didn’t know what it looked like, didn’t know whether it would glitter, or glow, or be the color of old mahogany worn by generations of hands. But she would find it. Then she would be able to rest. The ball, which didn’t move, was no use to her now, and she stepped over it, toward the castle that was surely in the distance.