A long time ago there were a King and Queen who said every day, 'Ah, if only we had a child!' but they never had one. But it happened that once when the Queen was bathing, a frog crept out of the water on to the land, and said to her, 'Your wish shall be fulfilled; before a year has gone by, you shall have a daughter… '
Marian Paroo Hill paused in her dusting and smiled as Mrs. Paroo's voice floated into the kitchen. When the librarian was a little girl, her mother had often read her Briar-Rose, just as she was now reading the fairy tale to the twins.
It was a lovely, crisp Saturday afternoon in late September, and Marian and her family had been spending the day at her girlhood home, helping her mother with various chores that needed doing before winter set in. Harold and Winthrop tackled all the outside jobs, while Marian, Mrs. Paroo, Penny and Elly handled the indoor tasks – although, as the girls hadn't even reached their first birthday yet, their role mainly consisted of sitting in their crib and watching the proceedings with interested eyes. Occasionally, they would offer commentary in the form of burbling, babbling or, in some cases, plaintive whining – to which both their mother and grandmother responded by acknowledging the girls with beaming smiles and explaining in bright, cheerful voices just why they couldn't play right now. Thankfully, this was often enough to placate Penny and Elly, so Marian and Mrs. Paroo were able to complete their chores with few interruptions.
Indeed, since the Hill family had arrived at the Paroo house early that morning, they had gotten a lot accomplished. While Harold and Winthrop whitewashed the fence, weeded the garden and raked the yard, Marian and her mother had dusted the parlor, cleaned out the cabinets, swept the floors, polished the silver, finished the mending, pressed all the summer linens and put them in storage – and it wasn't even three o'clock yet. The only thing left to clean was the kitchen, which Marian insisted on handling herself when she saw her mother nodding off while darning a sock. At first, Mrs. Paroo put up a fuss, saying she was perfectly capable of looking after her own kitchen – indeed, even though she was less limber than she used to be, she still prided herself on keeping the room spotless. But when Marian offered her the option of watching the girls instead – having been confined to a much smaller space than they were used to for the past several hours, they were beginning to grow rather antsy – Mrs. Paroo relented.
As the kitchen was already neat to the point of being pristine, there wasn't a whole lot for Marian to do except disinfect the harder-to-reach surfaces. This took her only about ten minutes – just long enough for Mrs. Paroo to get Penny and Elly settled and retrieve Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm from the bookshelf. Wanting to give her mother a little more uninterrupted time with the girls, Marian decided to go outside and check on Harold and Winthrop's progress. But one glance out of the window over the sink revealed that her husband and brother were also engaged in a little quality time of their own – jumping in leaf piles and laughing uproariously as they competed to see who could bury the other first. Not wanting to intrude – or get covered with leaves, herself – Marian decided returning to the parlor would be best. So after giving the sink and counters one final wipe, the librarian placed her dishcloth with the other soiled rags ready for the laundry and went to rejoin her mother and daughters.
Sure enough, Mrs. Paroo was ensconced on one end of the parlor sofa, reading aloud from the compendium of tales open on her lap. Penny, who tended to be the more rambunctious of the twins, was nestled quietly in her grandmother's arms, while Elly gazed contentedly at the two of them from her corner of the couch.
It happened that on the very day when she was fifteen years old, the King and Queen were not at home, and the maiden was left in the palace quite alone. So she went round into all sorts of places, looked into rooms and bed-chambers just as she liked, and at last came to an old tower. She climbed up the narrow winding-staircase, and reached a little door. A rusty key was in the lock, and when she turned it the door sprang open, and there in a little room sat an old woman with a spindle, busily spinning her flax…
Marian had entered the parlor quietly so as not to disturb the proceedings, but as if possessing some instinct for maternal presence, Elly turned her head to the spot where her mother was standing. When the infant saw Marian, she burbled and reached out for her, flailing her little arms in eager delight. The librarian was more than happy to oblige. Walking over to the sofa, she lifted Elly into her arms and settled herself and her daughter on a nearby wingback chair.
"Well, wasn't that was quick!" Mrs. Paroo said with a smug smile. "I told you the kitchen was already clean."
Marian merely laughed, her amusement increasing when her mother had to pause to attend to Penny once more – as soon as Mrs. Paroo's attention wavered, the infant had taken advantage of the distraction to reach out and crinkle the pages of the book in her tiny fists.
"I can't take my eyes off you for a moment, can I?" Mrs. Paroo admonished in an indulgent voice. Penny let out a gleeful laugh as her grandmother planted a noisy kiss on the top of her forehead.
As if taking cues from her sister, Elly reached out and tugged at the locket dangling from Marian's neck. "You can't take your eyes off of either of them!" the librarian agreed as she attempted to extricate the silver heart from her daughter's tenacious grasp.
Once they had both gotten the girls to settle down again, Mrs. Paroo continued reading.
But by this time the hundred years had just passed, and the day had come when Briar-Rose was to awake again. When the King's son came near to the thorn-hedge, it was nothing but large and beautiful flowers, which parted from each other of their own accord, and let him pass unhurt, then they closed again behind him like a hedge. In the castle-yard he saw the horses and the spotted hounds lying asleep; on the roof sat the pigeons with their heads under their wings. And when he entered the house, the flies were asleep upon the wall, the cook in the kitchen was still holding out his hand to seize the boy, and the maid was sitting by the black hen which she was going to pluck…
Just then, the front door opened, and Harold bounded into the parlor. Upon seeing their father, Penny and Elly started burbling and fidgeting anew. Grinning, the music professor came over and swept his daughters up into his arms. "My little darlings, how I've missed you!" he said fondly, holding them close. "You're being good for your mother and grandmother, I trust?"
Marian was about to remark that it would have been a lot easier to ensure the girls stayed quiet if their father didn't insist upon entering rooms so loudly, but as she watched Penny and Elly squeal with delight and nestle closer to their beloved dad, she could only beam at the three of them.
"The girls have been wonderful, as always," Mrs. Paroo assured her son-in-law. "We were just reading Briar-Rose." She closed the book and stood up from the sofa. "But it's getting late – I need to get supper started so we can eat at a decent hour! Where's Winthrop?"
"Still out taking advantage of the beautiful autumn day," Harold replied. "Several of his band mates came by and 'captured' him for a 'treasure hunt.'"
Mrs. Paroo nodded approvingly; even two years after the music professor had come to town, she always received news of Winthrop's social excursions with cheerful appreciation.
Marian laughed. "All the boys were dressed as pirates, I presume?"
Harold nodded. "Apparently, pirates have been all the rage since Peter and Wendy arrived at Madison Library earlier this summer. It's gotten pretty bad – the boys keep begging to do sea shanties for their next concert! All this is rather amusing, given that most of them have never seen an ocean – and it's not likely they ever will… "
"I was wondering why you brought home music from the Pirates of Penzance a few days ago," the librarian laughed.
"You two do keep River City on its toes!" Mrs. Paroo observed with a chuckle as she headed toward the kitchen. "Last summer it was marching bands, this summer it's pirates. I wonder what the big thing will be next year?"
Harold gazed impishly at his wife over the tops of the girls' heads. "Briar-Rose?" he suggested with a wry grin.
"Oh, dear!" Mrs. Paroo's voice came sailing into the parlor. "I forgot to get the parsley for the Irish stew!"
Once Mrs. Paroo had changed and left for Dunlop's grocery store, Harold retreated to the kitchen to wash up. Marian was left alone in the parlor – she and her husband had offered to go to the store in her mother's stead, but Mrs. Paroo wouldn't hear of it. The doting grandmother had also insisted on taking the girls with her and, although they were due for their afternoon nap, the librarian didn't protest. While she liked to keep Penny and Elly on a fixed routine, she was more than willing to be flexible when the situation warranted. As the years continued to pass, Marian was growing more and more aware that her mother wouldn't be around forever, so any time her daughters got to spend with their grandmother was infinitely precious. And, to be perfectly frank, she needed a little break.
But as relaxing as the silence was, it was also a little jarring. Marian wasn't used to having nothing to do in the middle of the afternoon. Before Penny and Elly had come along, her life was extremely busy, and the birth of her daughters made it even more so. But as tired as Marian often grew, she relished all the activity – she had never been a woman who was given to too much leisure.
Not quite knowing what to do with herself, the librarian stood up and paced the parlor. As she reached the end of it, she looked up and saw that the door to the upstairs tower room was slightly ajar. A sudden wave of nostalgia overtaking her, she ascended the stairs and entered her girlhood bedroom.
It had been almost two years since Marian had married and left home, but her old room was still the same as it ever was – even though Mrs. Paroo often mentioned she was planning to turn the upstairs tower room into a guest bedroom. Marian, who had long ago said her goodbyes to this dear spot when she happily entwined this intimate aspect of her life with her husband's, enthusiastically offered to help her mother with the project. But somehow, Mrs. Paroo could never seem to find a convenient time for it. Surmising that her mother still wasn't entirely ready to redecorate, the librarian never pressed her about the matter. So the room remained a shrine of sorts to Marian's girlhood.
As the librarian gazed out the windows of her tower and indulged in reflective flights of fancy, she eventually became aware that the door to her bedroom was now closed, and she was no longer the only one in the room. Turning around, she saw her husband gazing at her with quiet affection.
"So you can enter a room quietly," Marian slyly observed, even as she felt her heart beat a little faster. Although she and Harold were now married, and the parents of two children besides, it was a surprisingly charged moment; not only was this the first time they had ever been completely alone together in her mother's house, this was also the first time he had ever stepped foot in her old bedroom.
Clearly savoring the alluring potential for impropriety that such circumstances presented, Harold winked at his wife and replied in a mischievous voice, "Ever since that fateful night in July when I first stood outside and watched your silhouette moving about the room, I've always wanted to see the inside of the tower where you waited for your white knight."
Marian blushed and laughed a little. She had never used such flowery terms for her girlhood bedroom – at least, not in conversation – but in that uncanny way of his, he had managed to put his finger on exactly how she felt. She had done a lot of dreaming in this room. And when she fell in love with the bombastic and charming music professor, her dreams had become quite heated indeed.
Looking as self-satisfied as if she had spoken such ruminations aloud, Harold grinned and asked in a gentle, teasing fashion, "And how often did you dream of being in my arms as you drifted off to sleep at night?"
Marian's usual response would have been to further their banter with a lighthearted yet flirtatious retort. But nostalgia had put her in a more subdued frame of mind. This room had been her sanctuary; the one place where she could be vulnerable and straightforward and entirely herself. It was not a place to hide her true feelings. The librarian's smile grew bittersweet as she looked into her husband's eyes and honestly replied, "I spent many nights dreaming of lying in your arms… though I never knew whether those dreams would come true or not."
Harold's grin immediately faded, and he gazed at his wife with a rare expression that she soon realized was regret. Marian's eyes widened in alarm and she tried to apologize to her husband, explaining that she had answered without thinking and hadn't meant to make him feel guilty.
But when Harold sat down on the foot of her bed and began to remove his shoes, Marian trailed off into startled silence. Even when he stood up to remove his suit-coat, she was too stunned to say anything. It wasn't until he started loosening his tie that the librarian recovered her powers of speech. "Harold, what are you doing?" she breathed, her stomach churning with excitement and apprehension.
Once again, Harold's response was entirely physical; he lay down on the narrow bed and opened his arms to her. Despite the strong temptation to join him, Marian balked at doing so. Even if they were husband and wife, this didn't seem to be the appropriate place to be engaging in such behavior – what if Mama came home early and discovered them?
Harold gave her a tender smile. "Darling, you can rest assured that I'm not planning to do anything to defile the sanctity of your maidenhood."
The married mother of twins burst into laughter at this, and her apprehensions vanished. Sitting down at her vanity, Marian unlaced her boots and unwound her chignon before lying down next to her husband. As Harold slid his arm around her waist and pulled her close, she buried her head in his chest and reveled in the delight of breathing him in – in addition to his usual bay rum and sandalwood, he also smelled of fresh loam and autumn wind, which added a delightful dimension to his familiar scent. Feeling wonderfully, absurdly, perfectly happy, Marian wound her arms around his neck and fervently whispered, "I love you so much."
Harold leaned in and gave her a soft kiss, before burying his face in her hair and letting out a long sigh. "Oh, Marian… I kept you waiting for a long time, didn't I?" he said ruefully. "I should have married you that August!"
She smiled and shook her head. "Neither of us was ready for that, yet."
He nodded, acknowledging the truth of her words. "Still, I could have been a lot more up front about my plans! Sometimes, I don't know how you put up with me, darling."
Her smile broadened. "You were worth the wait and uncertainty, Harold. I never expected to love, or be loved, like this. All those dear dreams I thought would never come true have been fulfilled – even my unlikely imaginings of us lying here together, just like this."
His arms tightened around her. "I also spent a lot of lonely nights in what's now our bed, wishing you were in my arms. When you finally were, it was one of the happiest nights of my life. I figured returning the favor was the least I could do to repay you for making my dream come true."
"What a lovely sentiment," Marian said dreamily. "But somehow, I always envisioned us as having more space. We're awfully cramped in this narrow bed."
"Awfully," Harold agreed before meeting her mouth with his. As he kissed her deeply and eagerly, she clung tightly to him in return – partly out of desire, but also partly so she wouldn't fall off the edge of the bed. When they parted several minutes later, gasping for breath, he archly added, "Although I must admit, the lack of space does have its charms… "
Marian giggled and pressed even closer to him as he captured her lips in another kiss.
If husband and wife had been at home, they would have made love. But since they didn't know how much time they had before Mrs. Paroo would return from town with Penny and Elly in tow, they refrained. And as they were already exhausted from their long day, it was easy enough to content themselves with mere kisses and caresses. As Marian drifted off in her husband's arms, her last coherent thought was appropriately that of the fairy tale her mother had been reading earlier:
And then the marriage of the King's son with Briar-Rose was celebrated with all splendour, and they lived contented to the end of their days.
An hour later, Mrs. Paroo arrived home to an unusually quiet house. Putting a rather cranky Penny and Elly in their crib so they could take a much-needed nap before supper, she noticed the door to Marian's old bedroom was fully shut – and she had purposely left it open to air out the room. Alarmed curiosity overcoming her sense of discretion, Mrs. Paroo went upstairs to investigate. When no one answered her knock, she carefully opened the door – and to her amusement and relief, found her daughter and son-in-law fully clothed and sound asleep on the narrow bed, their arms wrapped tightly around each other.
Giving the two lovebirds a fond smile, Mrs. Paroo quietly departed the room and headed downstairs to the kitchen to start supper. When everyone awakened to eat, she would ask Marian to find a little time in that jam-packed schedule of hers to help redecorate. The first item on the list would be to purchase a larger bed – as charming as the scene she had just witnessed was, it was clear to Mrs. Paroo that she really needed a guestroom to accommodate her growing family!