Who am I?

My name is Sienne, and before you ask, no, I don’t need you to tell me how
that’s ironic. Not least because I’m the only person in this
entire village who isn’t French.

Being cursed with an unusual first name is like having a strange scar
streaking along one cheek. Strangers are taken aback by it;
well-meaning people feel the need to comment, to ask where it came
from (or speculate on likely causes) or give advice as to how you
could make it less objectionable; small children point, laugh and
make audible remarks to their mothers. I have heard all conceivable
responses, in my time, from “what a beautiful name” to “your
parents must have hated you” and from there to a kind of stunned,
awkward, silence, and the abrupt pivot of hips as they turned to
leave. I have developed a habit of withholding my name but if I am to
tell my story bluntly, there seems little point in hiding it.  At any
rate, I didn’t choose it, and I daresay it seemed a good idea to
her at the time.

This is how I became Sienne: as a very young girl, “scarcely knee-high to a
grasshopper”, as my father would have said, I wanted to know
everything. From the moment that Gallino, our irritable rooster,
crowed in the half-formed dawn, to almost the moment my eyelids grew
too heavy to keep open , my little tongue would be working away,
busily asking questions that my parents, poor uneducated farmers,
couldn’t answer.

Why is the sky blue?”

Why do the oak trees lose their leaves in the autumn when the pine trees
down the lane stay green?”

What makes it snow?”

Looking back now, I don't blame them for what they did. They must have been
at their wits’ end- Mother couldn’t even go five minutes without
a small hand tugging at her skirt and an insistent little voice
piping up “who invented fire?” or some other childish prattle. So
I suppose it was no wonder that in the end, when old Mrs Sellars from
the next village offered to mind me for a few hours each day, they
gratefully accepted and sent me, their youngest and most troublesome
daughter, away, ostensibly to be educated.

Of what I thought of her at first, I have little memory: a vague recollection
of feeling wrong-footed and exiled from my home, afraid of her hooked
nose, thinking that she’d poison me with her strange food. The
local children believed she was crazy; a popular skipping rhyme
stated, without reserve, that she was a witch- after all, that’s
what “wise woman” essentially means, isn’t it? Soon, though, my
fear must have subsided, since it wasn’t long before I started to
look forward to the morning walk there and from then, to beg to stay
the night, a request which was often granted. Where was the harm,
after all? So my stays started to get longer and my knowledge grew
accordingly, each day  packed not just with the three ‘R’s but
zoology, botany, alchemy, languages (both modern and classical),
healing…and something else, something that I can only call magic.

You cannot imagine my surprise upon discovering that the old woman whom my
parents knew as Mrs Sellars was actually a beautiful fairy by the
name of Étincelle; it is impossible to describe. Not that it came as
a complete shock: I had long suspected that there was something
strange to her, some almost unearthly ability to find food where none
was present and to manipulate objects, making stale bread fresh and
broken bowls whole. A few times, I had detected a kind of shimmering
around her that I usually associated with the air above the fire.
Once I could have sworn I saw her levitate- just by a few centimetres
and not for very long, but I noticed. Still, the night that I watched
her, thinking that I was asleep, shrug off the glamour that
surrounded her like an old wet cloak that someone has worn in the
rain, I was so shocked I forgot all pretence and ran to her,
demanding an explanation for such a change. And she, breaking the
most fundamental rule of fairy lore, told me everything.

Her name was Étincelle, and yes, she really was a fairy, please stop pointing
at her wings. The reason for her presence was that this sleepy Tuscan
village was a convenient distance from Siena, where the fairies held
their council in secret beneath the vivid stripes of the duomo, and
where she was awaiting judgement for a crime she had committed,
namely that some three decades previously, she had taken a human

That what she had done was illegal didn't make sense to me, so I
skipped to the questions that my youthful mind could comprehend and
eagerly desired to know. “Was she a little girl like me?”

A little taller than you and a little older.”

So there was hope, when I was bigger. If children grew and aged by willing it
so, or by hasty prayers, I would easily have equalled her former friend on the spot.

Oh, and she was French,” Etincelle added, thoughtfully. “I should
probably get round to start teaching you that one day.”

Perhaps sensing that she was lost in her own world- even at such a
tender age, I could tell that Étincelle was a rather mercurial teacher- I fell to contemplating her former charge. While I had seen no sign of her French pupil, the knowledge that my teacher was in reality a fairy did give me an extra sense of
credulity. If fairies, which my mother had assured me were just in
stories, could exist in the normal world, coinciding with the regular
rhythms of spring and harvest in rural Italian villages, then who was
to say that there wasn't a little French girl (I couldn't think of
her as a woman) that I hadn't noticed, in some form or other? No, any
item in the room could conceal her true identity, and I took my eyes
away from Étincelle's face momentarily to better examine and evaluate the possibility.

It was as I was scouring the spice-rack that it suddenly occurred
to me- if the French girl had been changed into something else, who
must have changed her?

W-w-what happened to her?”

My mistress gave a little start, distracted from her
contemplations, then, seeming to realise what I was thinking from the
sudden bloodlessness of my cheeks and grim expression, chuckled. Her
eyebrows raised as if to ask “Qui, moi?” “Oh, nothing I
did, my dear. What happened to... her was
hat happens to all of them in the end. They die. That’s the thing about you mortal men, you always leave.”

I wouldn't leave.”

She laughed again, and explained to me, kindly, gently, that unfortunately, I'd
been born in the wrong era for that. Apparently the council had
decided on a new policy, whereby fairy interference was to be phased
out of human affairs. In time, they hoped, the two races would be
entirely separated, mutually unaware of the other’s existence.
Étincelle, therefore, had to be made an example of in court, had to
be frightened a little by the severity of the magistrates, but, she
believed, they would let her go. All would be well.

It must be testament to my youth at this point that I accepted all that she said
without question and went back to bed when bidden, that I obeyed her
command not to tell my parents and that I didn’t pester her to slip
from one guise to the other too often. Nor did our relationship or
the rhythm of our days change in essentials: mornings were still
devoted to arithmetic, afternoons to the sciences and evenings to
language work, with me as the eager pupil and her as the
knowledgeable, if erratic, teacher.

One day, when returning from a rare visit to my parents’ house, in which
Elisabetta, closest to me in age, had told me I belonged in my “real
home” rather than there, I found the house empty, with a pile of
books and a note thrown haphazardly onto the table. Reading the note,
I settled to the work assigned and waited for her to return. And
waited. And waited.

The sun had long since set when she burst in like a thunderstorm, like the
wrathful breath of the wolf on the house of twigs; my pale face bore
a line where it had rested, unseeing, against the open spine of the
grammar book on the table. Lights erupted from every extinguished
lamp around the room; doors slammed open and shut; pans rattled
angrily; I woke with a start.

They-exiled- me,” she growled, each word almost a full sentence in

Several prior late-night conversations had attempted to impress upon me the
gravity of this punishment, so I was aware of the implications. At
least, I had thought I had understood them, but that was in times of
peace when she didn't believe their jury could be so harsh, so cruel
as to actually enact them. She was to be cast out of their society
entirely, out of any of the major cities in which the fairies had
made their home, and doomed to spend the rest of her existence with
uncomprehending mortals. For her, though, the worst part of the
punishment was that she no longer even had the apprentice that was
the cause of her estrangement from all her race.

It makes me so angry!” she shouted superfluously, hissing with fury
through tightly-pressed teeth. The effect of such beauty and such
savagery was awesome. I could tell that in her rage she would do
anything to spite the council and I shuddered; it was the only time I
was ever truly afraid of her.

In a frenzy, she began to throw things into boxes- the copper kettle flew
from the stove; her clothes disappeared into trunks which shrunk so
small she should easily slip them into her coin-belt. Rooted to the
spot, I watched in horror as the furniture began to disappear around
me, comprehension dawning. She was going to leave.

But what about me?” I wailed babyishly.

My whining broke through some of her anger; she softened somewhat, though I
could sense it was with great effort that she restrained herself.
Bending down, she patted my flushed cheek. “Now now, it won’t be
so bad. You’ll go back to your parents and marry some nice farmer’s
son, just like all your sisters.”

That was no longer a fate that appealed to me- not with my half-admitted ambition
to become a fairy’s apprentice too, like her old protégée. “I
want to go with you. Who else will teach me about-” my mind blank,
I looked down at my book for inspiration “-French possessive

Seeing that I was right, that nobody else would be able to teach me these things
in a village where only the curate could read, or perhaps just to
stop me from continuing to plague her, she nodded, lips a tight,
narrow line.

Distractedly, she followed my chubby finger to the words on the page and bid me
recite them. I could tell that something had changed though- instead
of seeming interested in my progress, I recognised the preoccupied
tone that my parents had so often used with nursery songs to stem my
flow of questions. A tear trickled down my cheek as I obeyed,
dutifully chanting, “le mien, la mienne, les miens, les miennes, le
tien, la tienne, les tiens, les tiennes, le sien, la sienne-”

That’s perfect!” she laughed, cutting me off mid-recitation. Her delight,
as sudden and violent as her anger, made her strange beauty almost
maniacal. “That’s what I’ll call you- it’ll annoy them like
nothing else.
Hers- and it’s French for Siena- show them what I think of their poxy
council. Sienne…Sienne…would you like to be my apprentice?”

I laugh now when I think of how naïve I was. At the time, so excited I could
barely speak, I nodded, oblivious to the significance of everything
she had just said other than the idea that I need not be parted from
her. Even if I had realised that to be a fairy’s apprentice, to
travel, to learn, to question and receive answers would have meant
leaving behind my home, my family, even my name, I would have paid
the price gladly. As it was, unaware of the consequences of what I
was about to do, I agreed without question. Thus the daughter of
Annamaria and Giovanni was gone by morning: it was Sienne, the
witch's girl, who crossed the borders of Europe and experienced
mysterious and wonderful things.

No, it wasn’t until much later that I reflected on my choice and realised
the bitter irony apparent in my name. For Sienne, after the city that
had exiled her, after the defiant statement that, regardless of their
edicts, Étincelle had claimed me for her own, can also mean his.

The End

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