In a land not too far away there once lived a widow who was so poor and who worked so hard day and night to make a bare living that she had almost no time to teach her daughter the things a girl needs to know to be a proper wife. The girl, whose name was Perdita, had learned how to do a few useful things around the house, but when she laid the fire she always mixed green wood with the dry, when she made the soup she always forgot the salt and pepper, and when she swept she inevitably forgot to sweep under the bed. When she sewed she always pricked her fingers and left little red spots on the fabric, and when she spun she always made huge knots and horrible tangles in the new thread. Although she wasn’t very good at these important homely tasks, she had somehow learned to read and study numbers and she had even learned about Panglossian optimism. Her parents had no idea how this learning had come to her, unless it had something to do with the scholars who regularly passed through the town and with whom Perdita spent a lot of time. In her own opinion, the girl more than made up for her lack of useful skills with her brilliant mind and quick tongue…not to mention her beauty.
One day, although her mother had ordered her to finish the washing and hang the clothes in the sun to dry, Perdita left them soaking in the tub and went out and about with her mother’s second husband. On the road they happened to meet the Queen’s eldest Nephew. Now since the Queen had borne no daughters and was now too old to do so, everyone knew that one of her Nephews would inherit the throne when she died. As soon as he spotted the young man, Perdita’s stepfather saw an opportunity.
“Here’s your opportunity,” he murmured to the girl. “Do what you can to attract this fellow. If you do, things will go well for you and your mother.”
Perdita saw an opportunity, too. An opportunity to raise herself socially and find a life that was not so filled with laundry and other mind-numbing hard work. So she tossed her curls and swung her hips, she gazed up at the Royal Nephew, and soon she had his attention, for this young nobleman was interested in the things that have always interested the upper-class men. During their ensuing conversation, Perdita said coyly, “I may have a poor mother, but I’m quite clever, you know. I can read and write. I can cook and clean. I can sew and spin.”
“I’m interested in girls who can do useful things,” said the Queen’s Nephew. “Are you good at all things you do?”
“Oh, yes, I am very, very good,” the girl replied demurely. “I have a great many talents.”
“And,” said her mother’s second husband, “some of this girl’s talents no one has uncovered yet.”
“I see,” said the young man with a wink. “And may I learn what your hidden talents are, my dear?”
“Why,” said Perdita with a pretty blush, “why I can…I can—”
“She can spin straw into gold,” said the stepfather. “Who do you know who can do that?”
“No one at all.” The Royal Nephew took Perdita’s hand. “It’s well known that no man can spin straw into gold.”
“And she works very fast,” said the stepfather. “See how soft her hands are! Her fingers are as nimble as my own. Even though we’re not even related by blood, I have taught her all she knows!”
“Indeed,” the Royal Nephew said, “nimble…” And after he thought for a moment, he added, “My dear, would you like to come to my Aunt’s palace with me and show me—show us your talents?”
So with an unnecessary push from her stepfather, Perdita, who was sure she would be moving into the best of all possible worlds, went to the palace with the Queen’s Nephew. But the Queen was not there, for she was visiting one of her Sister Queens in a nearby land. When the Royal Nephew asked Perdita to show him how she spun straw into gold, she batted her eyelashes at him and, remembering what she’d seen other girls do, shrugged her linen bodice just a little bit off one shoulder. A little while later, when the Royal Nephew asked again about spinning straw into gold, she shrugged her bodice a little bit off her other shoulder. When he asked a third time about spinning straw into gold, however, she finally understood that he expected a reply.
She had to think fast. “Oh,” she said disingenuously, “oh, I only do it at night, when the moon is full, and I can never do it if anyone is watching. I can spin straw into gold only when I am left absolutely alone with my work.” She was feeling quite sure that the Royal Nephew would never leave her alone, especially with her soft linen bodice falling off both shoulders.
But Perdita hadn’t noticed that the moon was full that very night, and when the Royal Nephew offered to let her stay in the palace, she was loath to refuse the invitation. I’ll think of a way out of this predicament, she said to herself. I always do, for I’m very clever.
The young nobleman was keenly interested in gold, as nobles always are, and so he ordered a room at the far, far end of the farthest corridor to be filled one third full with straw. Then he got his aunt’s best spinning wheel and put that in the room, too.
“Here is a fine and private room,” he said to Perdita, “and I guarantee that no one will disturb you. Just spend the night here and show me how you can spin straw into gold, and I’ll give you a lovely reward in the morning.” And he winked at her.
What could the girl do? She watched the Royal Nephew close the door. She heard the key turn in the lock. She began to walk about the room. At last she sat down beside the wheel. But she didn’t have the least idea about how to spin straw into gold, for she couldn’t even spin flax into decent linen thread without getting huge knots and horrible tangles in it. She began to cry. “I’m lost!” she wailed. “No one is here to advise me. No scholar I’ve ever met has considered this situation. No man can spin straw into gold, but I can’t, either. Oh, woe is me.”
Suddenly she heard a voice, and when she peeked between her fingers, she saw a little man wearing a peaked green hat and a long brown jacket and wide brown trousers. He had a long white beard and big strong hands.
“Good evening,” he said. “Why are you crying?”
“I’m supposed to spin straw into gold, but I don’t know how.”
“Well now. What will you give me if I spin it for you?”
“The precious peridot necklace my stepfather gave me.”
The little man nodded, accepted Perdita’s peridot necklace (which was less precious than she thought it was), and sat down at the wheel. Whirr, whirr, whirr—pretty soon all the straw was spun into gold thread and all the reels were full. The little man bowed, tipped his peaked green hat, spun around three times (anticlockwise), and disappeared.
When the Royal Nephew came for Perdita at sunrise, he was amazed to see the gold thread. He hadn’t believed she could do it, of course, and he’d planned to take advantage of the silly girl’s embarrassment. But now he was astonished. He spent the day leading her throughout the palace and showing her all the grand public rooms. He also gave her a beautiful frocked bodice and sleeves of golden yellow, a skirt of lapis blue, and an underskirt of pale azure. (He thought clothes were all that interested girls. She decided she would have to teach him a lesson about smart girls.) He told Perdita she looked like the consort of a Royal Nephew when she put these beautiful clothes on. He also invited her to spend a second day with him at the palace.
That night, as they shared a modest meal of roast swan and pelican breasts stuffed with watercress and turnips, the Royal Nephew asked, as if in idle conversation, if Perdita had had any trouble with her spinning.
She straightened her shoulders and raised her chin. I am clever. “It was as easy as could be. It was almost as if I was sitting there daydreaming, it went so fast. See? My hands are completely uncallused.”
“Boy, that’s really swell,” said the Royal Nephew, gesturing to the butler to pour more wine. “Tonight I shall fill the room half full with straw, and if you spin that into gold, I’ll give you a very special reward. Tomorrow.”
And, again, what could Perdita do? She was accustomed to be flirty and clever, but she had long depended on her mother and stepfather to give her good sound advice about social matters. What would her parents say? She decided they would advise her to spend a second night beside the spinning wheel.
As she sat beside the wheel again, weeping and moaning because she was afraid her luck had run out, she suddenly heard a noise behind her. The little man had come back.
“What will you give me?”
“The carnelian bracelets the King-To-Be gave me today.”
The little man put the bracelets into his pocket, sat down at the wheel, and—whirr, whirr, whirr. Almost before Perdita could dry her eyes, wipe her cheeks, and blow her nose, all the straw in the room was spun into fine gold thread, all agleam on the reels, and it was even finer than last night’s thread.
The Royal Nephew was delighted to get so much free gold, for his aunt the Queen was very frugal with him and his brothers. If I marry this girl, he said to himself, and we corner the market in straw, why, then she can spin gold for me whenever I want it. How clever we will both seem to be!
From morning to night on the second day, he showed Perdita all the private rooms in his Aunt’s palace. He also gave her a necklace of citrines and amethysts, a stomacher embroidered with silk thread, a sky-blue silk underskirt, and a velvet overskirt shot with twenty-one shades of red. After a private supper that night, the Royal Nephew got down on one knee, took Perdita’s soft hands in his, and said to her, “Perdita, my dear, I have discovered that I love you. Will you be my wife?’
Well now. Love was a new idea to Perdita, for the only marriages she’d ever seen were those arranged by parents for their own benefit. But this proposal seemed like a very good thing. It would benefit her enormously, for when she became Queen, she would never have to work again. She could read all day long. She said yes.
“Good!” said the Royal Nephew. “For protocol, of course, we’ll have to consult with your mother and stepfather and we will require the permission of my Aunt the Queen, but I have no fears of refusal. All I ask of you, my dearest one, is that you spend one more night spinning straw into gold. And this is of course merely to show my Aunt the Queen what a perfectly splendid girl you are.”
A third time, and what could Perdita do? What indeed? Confess and be found out? Oh, she thought, if only I could send for my books of philosophy and politics and read about what to do. And what might I learn? To spend the night here again! Oh, woe, woe, woe. I fear I may be lost.
She agreed to spend just one more night spinning straw into gold. But what could she give the little man? She hoped he would come and rescue her again.
He came. “Well now. A third night. What will you give me?”
“Whatever you ask.”
The little man held his beard in his hand and seemed to think for a long time, and then he said, “When you’re married to the King-To-Be, you’ll have everything you can ever think you want. What do I want? Your firstborn daughter. I’ll have great things to teach her. You can count on it: I’ll spin this roomful of straw into gold tonight and come for the child in a year.”
—This Story’s Not Done Yet. Come Back Tomorrow–
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the Neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.