A New Fairy Tale
Joshua Alan Sturgill
Once upon a time…
…there lived a very fickle, foolish king who cared only for feasting and festivals. When it was Spring, he wanted falling leaves; when it was Autumn, he wanted fresh flowers. He was never quite satisfied, and his moods and his appetites continually vexed his servants and friends.
Without reason or warning, he would demand some food or some entertainment which no one could provide for him.
“I want a square circle!” he would say. “I want a green ruby! I want the sun to stay up at night! I want a cold fire!”
He would shout and pout, and if he didn’t get what he wanted, he would fold his arms and stare at the floor angrily and complain that no one cared about him.
One morning, the king’s mood was particularly morose. “I am very depressed,” he said, “and the only thing that will make me happy is a pie.”
“What kind of pie?” asked the cook.
“I want a pie made from my favorite little yellow berries” said the king.
“But it’s past harvest season for berries,” the cook replied, “there are no more little yellow berries this year.”
“I don’t care,” said the king. “I want a little yellow berry pie. I want one now.”
“We will make you a pie when the berries grow again,” his servants told him. “For now, you must wish for something else.”
“No,” said the king. “I want my pie now. I will not get out of bed until I get my pie.”
“Be reasonable,” all his courtiers said. “There are many other pies, and many other good things to eat. Get up and ask for something we can make.”
“I want a little yellow berry pie,” repeated the king, “and I will grant to the one who can bring me a yellow berry pie something from the royal treasury. A single pie in exchange for a single item from the treasury—whatever might be asked!”
This proclamation created quite a stir at the court—with servants and administrators, scholars and scribes running all over to find little yellow berries to make the pie and get the treasure.
But the servants couldn’t find the berries. And the courtiers couldn’t find the berries. And the king’s friends couldn’t find the berries.
Then the king demanded that a proclamation be sent through the whole kingdom: one royal treasure in return for one little yellow berry pie.
“But berries are out of season,” said the townspeople. And no one could think of what to do.
No one, that is, except a wise old woman who lived in the village not far from the castle. A few days after the king’s message was sent out, she came boldly to the court and said to the king, “I will make you a pie from little yellow berries, but you must be sure to give me what I want from the royal treasury.”
“Certainly,” said the king. “Name what you want, and it will be yours.”
“In the royal treasury is the royal wardrobe, and from the wardrobe I want a beautiful dress,” said the woman, “a dress of lace and satin and silk, with pearls and diamonds woven into it—a dress fit to be the wedding gown of a princess.”
The king stared at her, and then he began to laugh and laugh at the thought of a poor old woman wearing such finery. She will look like a fool, and that will be very amusing, the king thought to himself.
But out loud he said, “if you do indeed bake me a little yellow berry pie, I will grant you the gift of the most beautiful dress in the kingdom—the wedding gown of a princess.”
“It must be the dress you would give to your own child, if you had a daughter,” said the woman.
The king did not have a daughter. He had one son—who was (to the great relief of the court) much wiser and kinder than the king.
“Very well,” said the king, “the dress will be yours when I have my pie.”
“Thank you,” said the wise woman. And she bowed as she left the throne room and started the short journey back to her home.
As she walked, she sang to herself a very old song her had mother taught her and she had taught to her own child:
I know the rich, I know the lean.
I know the story of the wind.
I watch the beasts, I watch the trees.
And all of life I guide and tend.
The moon at night, the sun by day
and all the colors of the stars
will walk with me along the way,
the paths of seasons near and far.
The woman from the village had lived many years. She watched the leaves fall and grow again in the spring. She observed the stars and the planets. She knew all about the ways and habits of animals.
She knew all about the little yellow berries that would most please the king, and she knew where to find them.
“I must follow the ants,” she said.
A few little yellow berry bushes grew behind her house, and as the weather began to cool in early autumn, she had often seen ants busily climbing the bushes and carrying berries back to their colony under a large stone in her yard.
It isn’t very far from harvest season, the old woman thought to herself. The ants will have plenty of berries hidden down in the ground where it’s cold and quiet. There will be more than enough to make a pie.
When she arrived home, she lifted the stone and sure enough there was a cache of little yellow berries there, guarded by the ants.
“I will only take enough for one pie,” the woman said to them. She gathered a handful of berries and carefully replaced the stone so the ants would not be too disturbed.
“Thank you!” she called to the ants. And she quickly made a little yellow berry pie—round, sweet and fragrant. Just what the king requested.
When the old woman came the next morning to the castle, the gates were opened for her and the court assembled to see if the king would, indeed, keep his promise.
“What do you want?” he grumbled when the attendant woke him.
“The village woman you made the promise about the gown is back,” said the attendant.
“Did she bring me a pie?” asked the king.
“Yes,” said the attendant.
“Does it look delicious?” asked the king.
“It looks perfect,” said the attendant, “it’s round with a golden crust on top and is the most fragrant pie I have ever smelled.”
“It had better be good!” said the king, and he jumped out of bed. He washed, dressed, put on his crown and rushed downstairs.
There was the old woman waiting patiently before the throne with the pie in her hands. By the time the king arrived, the wonderful smell of the pie had filled the whole room, and everyone from the stable boy to the grand duke stood with mouths watering, stomachs rumbling, and hearts racing to see what the king would do.
“Bring me the royal knife!” commanded the king. A golden knife was brought from the kitchen. The king stared suspiciously at the woman. The woman stared boldly at the king. In went the knife to cut the pie, and it came out again with a bit of crust and bright, shiny baked berries clinging to it.
When the king tasted the pie, his eyes lit up and a huge smile spread across his face.
“Delicious!” he exclaimed, and he called for the treasurer to bring out what the woman had requested.
A cheer whet up from the crowd, and the old woman bowed graciously as she received the dress. It was, truly, a marvelous work of art. Diamonds and pearls and silver thread adorned the linen and lace.
“Thank you,” said the woman as she folded and neatly wrapped the gown, “we will meet again soon enough.”
The king took his little yellow berry pie back to his room and devoured it in one sitting. He chuckled at the thought of the old woman wearing the dress, but as he was a very self-indulgent and absentminded person, he soon forgot about her almost completely.
Almost, that is, until not many days later when the king had a great craving for soup.
“We will make you soup,” said the kitcheners.
“I want soup made from orange squash with purple stripes,” said the king.
“Purple stripes?” they exclaimed. “Purple-striped squash is very rare and we’ve already used up what we had!”
“I want purple-striped orange squash soup,” said the king, “and I won’t get out of bed until I have it.”
And true to his word, the king stayed in bed. He stayed for a day. He stayed for a week. He was in a very, very bad mood when he suddenly remembered the old woman who had baked him the pie.
“Send for the old woman,” demanded the king, “bring her here directly! I must see her. If all my cooks and chefs and cellarers can’t make me purple-striped orange squash soup then I will ask the woman who made the little yellow berry pie. She will make the soup. Tell her I will give her a great sum of gold and silver.”
Later that same day, two of the king’s soldiers arrived at the home of the old woman. When she saw them, she smiled and said, “what does the king want this time?”
“Soup,” said the soldiers, “soup made from orange squash with purple stripes.”
“And what will he offer me when I bring him the soup?” she asked.
“The king has decreed that he will give you gold and silver,” they replied.
“Tell the king that he must fill three chests for me: one with gold coins, one with silver coins and one with golden cups and silver plates bearing the royal crest. I will bring him the soup in two days.”
The soldiers bowed and went back to report the woman’s words to the king. “Of course!” said the king, “anything she wants. I must have that soup!”
When the soldiers left her, the woman packed a small bag for an overnight journey.
She knew that savory dishes made from purple-striped squash were part of the ceremonial meals served just outside the kingdom at a village a day’s travel to the south. Every year, the people of that village grew a surplus of squash and saved it until the time of the festival. It would be very simple to purchase a bowl of purple-striped orange squash soup.
The road was lonely and peaceful as she made her way south, and again she sang the song her mother had taught her and she had taught her child:
Fire burns, but water lasts.
I tell the story of the wind.
I know the feasts, I know the fasts.
I will not break, but I may bend.
The moon at night, the sun by day
and all the colors of the stars
will walk with me along the way.
I see the seasons near and far.
I will follow the parade, she said.
Close to the village, the woman began to hear the happy sound of children’s voices mixed with music and dancing. The beginning of the festival, she thought. There was indeed a parade in the street as she arrived, and joining herself to the crowd, she followed it to the town square where tables and chairs, banners and flags were arrayed.
The woman stayed that night at an inn, and early the next morning, she went back to the square to look for the best soup in town. Many local cooks had set up booths to sell baked goods, candies and local fare. But one booth had a very long line and the woman knew it must serve the very best food.
From her bag, she took out a large pot with a close-fitting lid and purchased enough squash soup to fill it.
“Almost gone!” said the cook happily as he ladled the creamy, purple soup into her pot. “Last crop of the year! Just in time for the celebrations!”
The woman thanked the cook and carefully put the pot into her bag. Her return journey took most of the day, but she arrived at the castle before sunset.
The king leaped out of bed when he heard the news that the old woman had come to the castle. By the throne he waited with three wooden chests filled with gold, silver, plates and cups.
“Where have you been?” the king demanded, “I have been sending soldiers to your house every hour for the last two days. I am irritable and grouchy and it’s all because I haven’t had my soup!”
“I said I would be here in two days, and I have kept my word. Here is your soup.”
She took the pot of soup from her bag and held it out to the king. When the king lifted the lid, the spicy, enticing smell of purple-striped squash immediately filled the air.
“Bring me the royal spoon!” called the king.
The spoon was rushed to the throne room, and the king greedily dipped it into the soup.
“Oh my!” the king said, “just what I wanted.”
And he sat down right on the floor with his arm cradled around the pot of soup and didn’t get up until he had eaten every bit and wiped the pot clean with his fingers.
“You must keep your promise,” said the woman, and the king gestured that the chests were to be delivered to the woman’s house immediately.
“Thank you,” she said as she bowed again, “you may keep the pot. I will get it back from you when I see you again in a short time.”
The king stayed on the floor all evening thinking of the delicious soup, and when he finally got up to go to bed, he had nearly forgotten about the old woman.
Nearly, that is, until not long after his craving for soup was satisfied and when the king wanted yet another particular food.
“Salad!” the king yelled one morning from his bathtub. “I want salad. Bring me a salad!”
So the cook made a salad and brought it to the king.
“This isn’t the kind of salad I want,” said the king, “bring me another!”
So the cook prepared another salad and presented it.
“No,” said the king. “This isn’t right either. I want a salad made from the lettuce that grows in the royal gardens—the bright green lettuce with the dark red spots!”
“But we’ve harvested all of that lettuce,” said the cook. “The leaves have withered and the lettuce has gone to seed and the stalks have dried. There won’t be more until next year.”
“But I want some,” complained the king.
“See for yourself,” said the cook, and he told the king to look out of his window down to the lettuce beds in the royal gardens. Certainly the beds were empty except for the brown stems of the lettuce and their empty seed plumes.
“But I need my salad,” said the king. “I won’t get out of bed until I have a salad made from the bright green lettuce with the dark red spots!” And true to his word, the king crawled into bed and pulled the covers up to his face and stared doggedly at the wall.
His demand for salad was so intense that the king stayed in bed for almost two weeks, pouting and grumbling.
“What can we do?” the courtiers asked him. “You ate the last of the lettuce a month ago, and the leaves are too delicate to be stored or imported. If you will wait, we will bring you the first crop early in the Spring.”
“No,” said the king. “When I wanted cold fire or square circles, it was all in fun to see everyone scurry around to try to find these things. Very entertaining. But now I feel that I am quite ill and will shrivel up and wither up and die up if I don’t have my salad.”
And then an idea occurred to him.
“Why didn’t I think of it before!?” the king said. “Call for the old woman! She brought me my yellow berry pie when the yellow berries were gone and purple-striped orange squash soup when there was no orange squash with purple stripes in the whole kingdom. She will make me a salad of bright-green red-spotted lettuce, too!”
“We will ask her,” his servants replied, “but what will you promise her this time—more clothes?More silver?
“Anything she wants!” the king declared. “Tell her I will give her anything she wants if only she will make me a salad from the bright green lettuce with the dark red spots.”
That same hour the wise woman was again met by soldiers on her doorstep.
“The king is in a terrible fit this time,” they told her. “He won’t get out of bed until he has his salad.”
The soldiers told her what kind of salad the king wanted and what he was willing to give her for it.
“Tell the king I will make him a salad,” she said, and the soldiers bowed and left.
After the soldiers were gone, the woman waited until dusk and then she secretly went to the royal gardens next to the castle.
“I must follow the wind,” she said.
The wise woman stood in the garden next to the empty lettuce beds for a very long time. The full moon began to rise, and a gentle wind sprang up, blowing steadily downhill, away from the castle. Careful to keep the wind behind her, she traced the path of the breeze as it passed a few houses and streets and then dipped down to where a little stream splashed among round stones in a hollow place in the hillside.
As she followed, she again sang the song she had learned from her mother and had taught to her own child:
Seasons end, but cycles last;
this is the story of the wind.
What is to be is surely past,
and what I break, I surely mend.
The stars at night, the clouds by day,
the sparrow and the mourning dove
will fly with me along the way
to find my joy within my love.
With the hillside to shelter them and the stream to water them, the lettuce seeds blown nightly by the wind from the palace garden had sprung up late and wild in this little hollow. There were plenty of leaves left to make a salad, and the woman gathered a great bunch and brought them back to her house.
Early the next morning, the woman put into action the plan she had long had in mind. When she finished making the salad, she put the dress and the chests of gold, silver and dishes into her cart—and added one special treasure besides: her only child.
As they rode together up to the castle gates, they sang the song:
The moon at night, the sun by day
and all the colors of the stars
will walk with us along the way,
through all our stories, near and far.
All things guided by the good
and all by song made darkly bright
are joined in wisest harmony:
the sun by day, the moon at night
The largest crowd yet was waiting to greet them as they entered the castle and many wondered why the woman had come with all that she had previously received from the king.
“I’m famished!” the king said, “where is my salad?”
The woman uncovered a platter with the leaves piled high and dripping with oil and herbs for dressing. It looked simply marvelous in the morning light, and smelled like a spring garden.
“Bring me the royal fork!” began the king, but this time the woman interrupted him.
“First, I want you to grant me my wish,” she said.
The king was taken aback, but quickly replied, “Of course! What do you want?”
“I want your son to take my daughter’s hand in marriage,” said the woman. And at that, her daughter stepped forward from the crowd.
She was, indeed, a very beautiful girl, but very poorly dressed, and the king began to laugh.
“She is pretty,” he said, “but look at her clothes! My son could never marry such a girl.”
The wise woman did not reply, but nodded to her daughter who stepped back for a moment and reappeared wearing the royal wedding gown.
The change in her appearance was staggering, and all the people around gasped with delight.
“But she has no dowry,” said the king. “My son could never marry a woman with no dowry.”
Again the wise woman nodded, and soldiers brought forward the three chests of gold and silver.
“Here is her dowry,” said the woman, “a great amount of gold and silver, and the beginning of her future household goods—cups and plates bearing the royal crest!”
The king was astounded. Speechless. He stared from the beautiful girl to the wise woman to the gold and silver and back again. For the first time in many years, he had quite forgotten about his appetite!
“Call for my son,” said the king. “I have made you a promise, so I will offer my son to your daughter. But if he refuses, I will not insist. He is old enough to make up his own mind.”
“Very well,” said the woman, and the prince was soon brought to the throne room.
When he looked around the room, he took in the whole strange scene, but his eyes were immediately arrested by the gracious face of the wise woman’s daughter. He barely noticed the dress or the gold.
“Son,” began the king, “this woman from the village has made me a salad, in return for which I promised her anything she might desire. Her wish is that you would marry her daughter. She has procured the proper dress and dowry (here the king blushed a little), and she is waiting for your answer.”
The prince needed no time to decide. He knew the foolishness of his father and had heard all about the wisdom of the woman. The daughter was beautiful, with kind and intelligent eyes. If she had her mother’s wisdom as well, she would not only be the perfect match for a prince, but the best future queen for the people.
“I would gladly accept her hand,” said the prince, and he did.
“Oh my!” said the king as the people cheered, “I forgot about my salad! And all this deliberation has doubled my hunger!”
So while the prince and the people celebrated with the wise woman and her daughter, the king took the salad and went back to his room to savor it in peace.
“Delicious,” he mumbled with his mouth full—but as he chewed, he couldn’t help thinking of green rubies, square circles and cold fire…
All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2020 by Joshua Alan Sturgill. All Rights Reserved.
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