That he should come—and pass—and would not stay,
The Silken-swift—the gloriously Fair!
That he should come—and pass—and would not stay…
There was once a farmer’s widow whose life was never ending toil. All she had ever wanted was a child of her own, but her husband had died before that dream could be realised, and now she felt she was too old to bear one.
One spring morning while she was toiling away in the fields she started humming a lullaby her mother used to sing to her when she was a child, and this made her sigh and lament aloud: “Alas, I will never sing lullabies to anyone, for I will never have a child!”
“My mistress could help you with that,” said a voice behind her.
Startled, the old woman whirled around. But there was no one there but an old black cat. “Did you just…? No, it couldn’t be. I must be losing my wits.”
“I assure you,” said the cat, “you are not.”
At this the woman gasped and backed away. “How is it that you can speak?” she asked the cat.
“I am no ordinary cat,” it explained, “but a witch’s familiar.”
“Oh!” the old woman crossed herself and made a sign of warding. “I’ll have no truck with witches and their ilk!”
“Well,” the cat sighed, its eyes narrowing. “That’s a shame. There might have been a beautiful child in the bargain for you.”
Now the widow thought about this for a moment and then she said: “What would I have to do?”
“You’d have to agree to her terms,” the cat replied, “whatever they might be. Why don’t you ask her yourself? It couldn’t hurt, and she doesn’t live far from here.”
The old woman shuddered, but she did want a child very badly.
“Very well,” she said after a moment. “Take me to your mistress.”
So the cat led her over the fields and through the woods until they came to the witch’s dwelling, which was nothing more than a small cave at the foot of a large hill, with a hole in the ceiling to let out the smoke from her firepit. Over the firepit stood a large black iron cauldron on three legs, and behind this stood the witch, busily brewing something. Whatever it was seemed to need constant stirring, and this she did with a wooden boat paddle. She was extremely old and frightfully ugly, with a grimace that might have scared off the devil himself, and when the widow saw her she was tempted to turn and run. But then the witch smiled at her, and suddenly she didn’t look quite as fearsome as she had whilst frowning intently over her brew.
“Welcome,” she said without ceasing her stirring. “What can I do for you?”
The widow bowed respectfully. “I have always wanted a child. But now I am too old. Your familiar told me you could help me with that.”
“Indeed I can,” the witch assured her. “Or rather, I can explain to you how you may help yourself with that, and much more besides. But I require payment.”
“What sort of payment?”
“When the time comes, you must make me the guest of honour at your daughter’s wedding feast, but you must tell no one why.”
“Daughter!” the widow gasped. “But—”
“How did I know that it was a daughter you wanted? It’s as plain to me as the nose on your face. And you shall have her, if you agree to my terms and do everything exactly as I tell you to.”
The widow considered this for a long moment. It seemed a small price to pay for something she had wanted so badly for so long, even if the guest of honour was more than likely to frighten off all of the wedding guests. So finally she said: “It’s a deal!”
“Excellent,” said the witch. “Now listen to me very carefully, and follow my instructions to the letter, for what needs to be done is extremely dangerous. You see, in order to get what you want, you must summon and trap a fairy, and then refuse to release it until it has granted your wish.”
Then she told her how to go about doing that, giving her a small bottle sealed with wax. The wax seal bore some sort of magical symbol on it, which the witch had enscribed upon it with a pin.
“Once the fairy is inside the bottle,” the witch explained, “it will not be able to get out until you break this seal, and must therefore bargain for its release. But beware: you must ask for no more than three wishes. It would not be meet to ask for any more than that. And be sure to word your wishes carefully. Fairies have been known to twist a mortal’s words to suit their own purposes, especially if they’ve been angered. So above all, be respectful. The fairy will not take kindly to being trapped, and if you add insult to injury, it will be all the more inclined to trick you.”
So the old woman went home with the bottle and did as the witch instructed, and when she was done summoning the fairy the bottle started to get cloudy, and then to shake and rattle, and then finally to glow with a soft green light.
“Who has imprisoned me?” cried a voice that came from inside the bottle. “Release me at once!”
“I will release you,” the old woman said, “once you have granted me three wishes.”
“I see,” the fairy said. “Very well, what is your first wish?”
“I wish to safely give birth to a healthy baby girl who will grow up to be a beautiful young woman with long hair like beaten gold, eyes as green as emeralds, and skin as pale as milk.”
“It shall be done,” the fairy assured her. “Now what is your second wish?”
But the old woman hadn’t really thought beyond her first wish, so now she considered this for a long while. There were so many possibilities. How could she settle on just two? And even once she did decide, she would have to be very careful with the wording of her last two wishes. So now she said: “I need time to think of what my second wish will be.”
“Fine,” the fairy replied. “But see that you do not take too long. I have places to go and things to do, and you have already delayed me long enough.”
“Of course,” said the widow, and for now she put the bottle away in her cupboard. But the old woman could not think of what else she might wish for until after her daughter was born, which was around nine months later.
She named the girl Geva, and as she looked upon her for the first time she said to herself: “Why, of course! I cannot condemn my daughter to such a life of toil as mine, living in a hovel such as this. We must be rich, and live in a castle!”
So now at last she returned to the cupboard and opened it and took out the bottle the fairy was trapped in.
“It’s about time!” said the fairy irritably. “Now make your second wish!”
“I wish,” said the old woman, “for my daughter and I to be rich and dwell in a castle.”
“By rights that’s two wishes,” the fairy pointed out. “Being rich and having a castle. Normally I would say you should just wish to be rich and then buy a castle. But if it will move things along more quickly, I’ll grant it nonetheless.”
No sooner had she spoken than the hovel the widow lived in transformed itself into a magnificent castle with a great lawn and a walled garden, and also a huge vault deep within the castle keep which was filled with more silver and gold than any mortal could hope to spend in a lifetime. And because the fairy really did want to hurry things along, the castle was already teeming with servants.
“There,” the fairy said. “Now make your third and final wish!”
“Oh,” said the widow. “I must really give some thought to that one! I wouldn’t want to waste it.”
“Seriously?” The fairy was beginning to lose her patience. “Very well. But you’d better not make me wait as long as you did the last time!”
But the new mother was so happy with her daughter and her riches and her castle that she couldn’t think of what else she could possibly want until Geva was already on the verge of womanhood. Of course by now the maiden was quite a beautiful creature to behold, with long hair like beaten gold, eyes the emerald of the forests, and skin as pale as milk. In fact, her beauty became so legendary that it wasn’t long at all before suitors from all over the land started coming to seek her hand in marriage.
“Oh dear!” thought Geva’s mother then. “How time flies! Of course we must get my daughter a husband now that she is of age. Yet so far the best of her suitors has been but a knight. My daughter deserves no less than a prince!”
Then she remembered the fairy, and went into the castle pantry and retrieved the bottle from where it still sat locked away in the cupboard, now all covered with dust and cobwebs. But as she brushed these away and peered into the bottle, the visage the fairy bore was so frightful that it nearly froze the old woman’s blood with fear.
“Have you come at last to make your third and final wish?” the spirit asked angrily. “Do it quickly, for I have just about run out of patience with you.”
“I’m sorry,” the old woman said. “Yes, I am here to make my third wish. It is that my daughter be married to no less than a prince!”
“Naturally,” the fairy said. “Fine, it shall be as you requested. Now release me!”
But Geva’s mother knew the fairy was angry with her, and now she didn’t trust that she would hold up her end of the bargain. So she said: “Not until I have seen my daughter wed to a prince.”
“Tiresome woman!” the fairy roared then. “If you will but release me now I will not only see to it that your daughter is married to no less than a prince, I will improve your foolish wish. Because your daughter is innocent of any wrongdoing against me, out of kindness I will protect her from your folly by adding these requirements as well: this prince must truly love her, and she him, and he must be as innocent and pure of heart as she. Now set me free, or I will grant your wish as originally stated, only it will be to a prince of ogres who will devour her on their wedding night!”
“All right, all right!” the woman cried, and broke the seal on the bottle with her forefinger.
But no sooner was the fairy released than a great briar hedge grew up around the castle grounds, forming an impenetrable wall a mile thick and three miles high, with thorns as long and sharp as broadswords. Moreover, all the servants in the castle disappeared, for they had not been part of the original bargain after all.
“Since you took so long to release me,” the fairy said then, “you will now be made to know what it is like to be a prisoner. No mortal man or woman will ever pass the briar wall, save one—in keeping with our agreement, your daughter shall be married to no less than a prince as innocent and pure of heart as she, who will be her true love. Once the one who fulfills all of these requirements comes to this place, the briar wall will be no more, and you will both be free.”
“Please,” the old woman cried, “have mercy!”
“This is the extent of my mercy,” the fairy replied. “Within the circle of the briar wall time will cease to pass. It will always be summer, and neither you nor your daughter will age while the wall exists; nor will either of you ever want for food or drink. You will both abide here in peace and plenty for as long as it may take for your daughter’s prince to come, whether it be a hundred, or a thousand, or a hundred thousand years.”
Then the spirit disappeared, leaving the old woman alone to weep and wail with grief and remorse.
© 2014 by Strider Lee