Perdita was in a panic. She looked this way and that, but all she saw was a towering pile of straw. She sat down to breathe deeply and think deeply. While she was breathing and thinking, the little man held is peaked green hat in his hands and marched anticlockwise around the room, whistling a jolly marching song she’d never heard before. He marched around the room three times.
Finally Perdita said to herself, Who knows what can happen in a year? That’s a long time. I can promise anything now. And then, well, I know I’ll be able to think of something to do. I’ll study all year! Aloud she said, “Kind Sir, you are miraculous, for no man can spin gold, and yet—here you are, spinning gold! You can have what you ask for.”
And so the little man smiled a smile that showed all his teeth and sat down at the wheel and—whirr, whirr, whirr—the whole roomful of straw was soon spun into the finest gold thread imaginable, twice as fine as the finest silk thread the merchants sold at the harvest festival.
As soon as the Queen arrived back at her palace the next day, her Nephew introduced his betrothed to her. The Queen was much older than Perdita thought she would be, and she was as wise as she was old. She took Perdita into her private chamber and asked her several questions. She learned more about Perdita than the girl realized, also about her mother and stepfather and young traveling scholars. Nevertheless, the Queen gave her royal blessing to the marriage, for she wanted her Nephew to be married to someone with a quick mind, good manners, and some ambition so the land would be well cared for after her death.
The wedding took place on the day following the summer solstice, and guests were invited from lands all around. Perdita’s mother and stepfather were invited, too, and they were both given new clothes to wear. The stepfather tried to have a private conversation with the Queen, but the major-domo led him into the map room and showed him some extremely dependable treasure maps.
After the wedding banquet of roast peacock and candied goldfish and artichoke hearts and rosewater dumplings, the Queen and Perdita’s mother walked together in the gardens and talked of many things. Pretty soon, after the stepfather had memorized several of the treasure maps and borrowed enough money to rent a ship and set off to claim his treasure, the mother was invited to move into the palace, where her healing and domestic arts would be appreciated.
A year and a day later, Perdita gave birth to a daughter who was the most beautiful baby in the whole land. The royal birth was celebrated with fireworks and parades and festivals and rituals in the temples that lasted three whole days without pause. Perdita’s mother was appointed chief nursemaid and immediately hired a wet nurse who had the creamiest milk in the whole land.
On the third night after the baby’s blessing and naming day, Perdita was alone in her chamber, brushing her long, curly hair, when she heard a noise behind her.
“Well then. I have come for the baby.”
“What?” Perdita pretended not to recognize the little man. “And just who are you? And what are you doing in my private chamber? Get out immediately or I shall call the guards.”
“You know who I am. You know why I’m here.”
“Yes, yes, I confess it. I do.” She allowed a tear to roll down her cheek. “Oh, but please don’t take my baby. I have never loved anyone before, and I love this baby more than anything I have ever possessed. Here—take my jewelry. All of it. Take my jeweled toys. Take the tapestries from the walls. Take my richly embroidered clothes. Take my royal robes. Take my golden coronet. Take these books I’ve read. Take anything you want, but please, Kind Sir, oh, please don’t take my daughter.”
“We made a bargain. I have spun the gold for you. No man can spin gold, but I can, and I spun for three nights. Because of my spinning, you are now the heiress of the throne of this land. You must keep your part of the bargain.”
“No, no!” Perdita cried, glad that the baby was in her mother’s watchful care. “I cannot give up my daughter! She is more precious to me than gold.” And Perdita began to cry, to really cry, and her crying was so heart-rending that the little man finally began to take pity on her.
“Well,” he said, “I’ll give you a chance. I’ll come back three nights from now. If you can tell me what my name is, you can keep your daughter. If you cannot tell me my name, the child is mine to raise as I see fit, and I’ll teach her every bit of magic I know so she will be powerful. She’ll help me gain a throne I covet.”
Perdita couldn’t sleep a wink that night, nor the next night, not even in her husband’s strong arms, because she didn’t dare tell him why she was so agitated.
“Well, Darling,” he finally said, “why don’t you go to our Aunt and talk privately to her? She’s very wise. She can solve all your problems.” And he promptly fell asleep, though Perdita lay awake beside him all the rest of the night.
As soon as an appropriate hour came and the courtiers were all occupied, she went in to see the Queen. “Madame Aunt,” she said, “I must talk with you, and I’m very afraid. No one else can possibly help me, not even my stepfather, who always gave me useful advice, not even the books of philosophy, which are all written by men. So I throw myself upon your wisdom and mercy.”
The Queen gestured for Perdita to sit beside her and marked the page in the book she was studying. Then she turned to the girl, who looked as if she would burst into tears any moment.
Perdita told the Queen the whole story. No, more than the whole story. She told her about her childhood, when in spite of her mother’s instruction she could never learn to do anything quite right. She used green wood for the fire and forgot the salt and pepper in the soup. She told the Queen how much she’d learned from the traveling scholars. She told the Queen about the useful advice about the importance of ambition she’d gotten from her stepfather and how she’d followed her stepfather’s lead at their meeting with the Royal Nephew.
The Queen already knew these things, of course, for she and Perdita’s mother had regular conversations together. Then Perdita told the Queen about spinning straw into gold, which she could never do, and about the little man. Now this was news to the Queen, for she had never been able to learn who had done the spinning.
“And now,” said Perdita, who was afraid to look up at the Queen, “I am so very sorry and so very afraid. If the little man takes my daughter, you’ll lose the true heiress to your throne, and who knows what will happen to the land if there is no Queen? I’ve grown to love my husband, even though I know he’s a spendthrift and not overly smart. He’s handsome, and he’s smart enough to rule beside me after…after….” She got down on her knees. “Madame Aunt, will you help me?”
The Queen sat and thought about what Perdita had said for several minutes while Perdita quivered and wondered what she would do with her life when she was thrown out of the palace as a fraud.
Then the Queen smiled. “My dear, I knew much of what you told me, for I take pains to keep track of my people. No, no, I don’t pry into their lives, but I have a pretty good idea of what goes on in my land. I’m glad you married my Nephew, for, yes, he does need a strong and clever wife. And I’m glad to hear your confession, which you really needed to make. I’m glad to hear of your concern for your baby.” She patted Perdita’s hand. “Yes, my dear, I will help you. I think I know who this little man is. He’s a proud and tricky fellow. My Sister Queens know about him, too. His ambition is well known, and so is his story.” And the Queen whispered something in Perdita’s ear.
The third night, as Perdita was brushing her hair again, the little man appeared in the room again, this time carrying a basket woven of rushes and big enough to hold a baby.
“Well then. Can you tell me what my name is?”
Perdita laid down her brush, and when she looked at the basket, her eyes filled with tears. Real, genuine tears. “I’ve inquired all around the land,” she said, “and I hope I’ve gotten the right answer.”
The little man smiled. No one had ever guessed his name. He had always kept it secret so no one would ever have power over him.
“Is your name Peaseblossom?”
“No. That’s just a stupid fairy name, and my name’s not Bottom, either. Guess again.”
Perdita was too worried to laugh at the little man’s weak joke. “Is your name Huitzilopochtli?”
“No. What kind of stupid foreign name is that?” The little man’s eyes were twinkling in anticipation of getting the better of this stupid girl. “You’ll never guess, and your daughter will be mine!”
Oh, please, just give me some time to collect my thoughts,” said Perdita, and she covered her eyes with her hand and pretended to think. Finally, when the little man was shaking in his impatience—
“Is your name Rumpelstiltzskin?”
That was the name the Queen had whispered in her ear. Perdita was started when the little man gave a whoop and jumped into the air.
“Are you serious? You believe that old wives’ tale? No, you stupid girl, that’s not my name, either.” He leaned forward until he and Perdita were nose to nose. “Your baby is mine! Mine! Mine!”
“Oh, no no no! Take pity on me. No man can be as cruel as you are!” And without thinking, she reached out and yanked the little man’s beard. And the beard came off in her hand.
“Oh, no! You’ve guessed it!” He jumped back. “You guessed my name!”
And Perdita suddenly saw that the little man was no man at all, but a tiny old crone.
“No one has ever guessed my name,” the tiny old crone shouted. “Curses!”
“What?” Perdita was so surprised she forgot to cry.
“Stupid girl, I am Noman. I have lived forever in Noman’s Land, which you could see on the map if you were smart enough to look. Hah! That’s where your stepfather is now, searching for invisible treasure, and you’ll never see him again in this life.”
Perdita could do nothing but stare. “No man can spin straw into gold,” she finally whispered. “Noman can spin….”
“It’s true!” the tiny crone said. “And I’ve been searching for a daughter to be my apprentice and follow after me.” She grabbed her beard out of Perdita’s hand and tried to stick it back on her chin, but it only fell off again. “And now you’re ruined all my plans. What shall I do?”
“How should I know? But you certainly cannot have my baby.”
“Curses! Now I shall have to wait and find another stupid girl who thinks she can do impossible things.”
And the tiny crone was so angry she ran right out of Perdita’s private chamber, leaving her basket behind. She ran out of the palace, and she ran clear out of the Queen’s land, and no one has ever seen her since, though people have occasionally reported seeing a mysterious Elder One hanging around wherever foolish girls neglect their chores and think they can do things no man can do.
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.