fridayflash: the girl with the golden braid

Once upon a time a stone-mason and his wife lived in a hut at the edge of a quarry. Times were hard, and the mason had a hard time finding enough work to put food on the table. His wife tried to start a garden and raise chickens, but all of the land around their hut was but bare gravel, and nothing would grow there.

One evening, coming home from a job that provided too little pay, the mason passed by a beautiful walled garden and spied a tree heavily laden with fruit. He looked up and down the street, but not a soul was in sight, and since the house in front of the garden seemed empty as well, he clambered over the wall, and took as much fruit and vegetables as he could carry. When he got home and gave his wife the food, he told her it was part of the payment for his labours that day. His wife was overjoyed, and set about making them a fine meal.

From then on, whenever the mason was short on coins and happened to be near the garden, he would climb the wall and take whatever he could carry. He decided that in such a bountiful garden, a few carrots and cabbages would never be missed. Surely no-one counted the apples on the trees.

He never saw a soul in the garden, which made his surprise all the greater when one day he was confronted by an old woman brandishing a crooked but very stout walking-stick in his direction.

"Caught you!" she cried, "and red-handed too!"

The local penalty for theft was to have one hand chopped off and the other one branded. The mason dropped the stolen food where he stood, fell on his knees, and begged for the crone's mercy.

The crone listened. Slowly she lowered her stick to the ground. When the man finished speaking, he stayed on his knees, blubbering like a schoolboy and terrified of her response.

"All right," the crone said. "You may help yourself as you already have been these long months, but you must make payment somehow. Everyone is short of gold these days, so I won't ask for money. As you can see, I am old, and as much as I hate to admit it, I am growing feeble. Have you any children to come help me?"

The man shook his head no. "My son is not yet one...." he began.

The crone waved her stick at the vegetables the man had dropped. "All that food for a married couple and a toddler? Come now, do you think me a fool just because I am merciful? Shall I call the sheriff after all?"

"No! No, please!" said the man. "I have another child, but a daughter. She is not quite six."

The crone snorted. "A woman can keep a garden," she said. "After all, I've tended this one by myself for years, and you had no trouble deciding I had food to spare." She swept the stolen vegetables towards her with her stick. "Come back here with your daughter before nightfall, and I will give you this food and let you have more, by our bargain. If you don't, the limestone dust on your clothes tells me I should tell the sheriff to find you near the quarry."

The man got off his knees, ran to the wall, and clambered over it. He ran home as fast as he could, and told his wife what had happened.

The mason's wife was devastated to learn the man had traded away their daughter, but the man pointed out that their son would learn his trade and take care of them in their old age, whereas a daughter was only good for a dowry. He bundled up his daughter's spare clothes, put her cloak on, and took her back to the crone.

The little girl cried when she was presented to the old woman and clung to her father, but the crone took her hand and firmly pulled her into the house while the stone-mason gathered the vegetables he had dropped before and went home to the quarry.

The crone guided the girl to the kitchen, sat her on a chair, and put a mug of apple-cider in front of her. "It is a cruel thing that has been done to you," she said, "and you are right to be sad.  I will not say that you will forget your mama and papa, because that would be a lie. But I will promise to be kind to you, and that while you will have to work, I will teach you how to make that work pleasant and rewarding."

Then she left the little girl to her tears, checked the windows and doors were all bolted and locked, and went to the parlour to sit in front of the fire.

Some time later the girl crept into the room. The crone paused in her spinning and glanced up at her, and the girl froze.

"Did you drink your cider?" the old woman asked.

The girl nodded.

"Good," said the crone. "Now it's late, and it's time for us to go to bed. The bedrooms are up in the attic, on either side of the chimney. Follow me and bring your things. You need to get your sleep, because tomorrow we both have lots to do."

To be continued...