Hello, beloveds! Long time, no see. As proof that I’ve not been utterly idle this long while, here’s a new fairy tale fresh from the Fairy Tale Factory assembly line:
THE GOLDEN THREAD
Once upon a time a husband and his wife lived in a small cottage on the beach. They lived modestly and loved one another very much. Their names were John and Arra. One day they received notice from the king that John must go fight in the war across the ocean. The night before he left, they shared tender embraces, after which John fell deeply asleep. But Arra could not sleep for worrying, so she walked down to the shore to cry. As she wept, a small, sweet voice asked her what was the matter. She looked down and saw a tiny golden woman sitting on a seashell.
“Oh, little friend,” she said, “my husband has been called away to war and I’m afraid I will never see him again.”
“Do not worry,” the woman said. “Reach into your pocket and you will find a shell and a thread. Tie the thread from your heart to his and you will always be able to find him no matter where he goes. The shell is for you. Keep it with you always, and use it only in a time of great need.”
“Oh! Thank you so much,” Arra cried. “What can I do for you in return?”
“You owe me nothing. But remember this one piece of wisdom, and take it home to your husband: If he should meet any strange creature on his travels, he must not reveal his name. If asked for his name, he must look the creature in the eye and say, ‘My name is mine and mine alone.’ If he forgets this advice, he may lose his soul.”
Arra thanked her and ran back to the cottage. In the morning she tied the thread from her heart to his, and gave him the tiny woman’s advice. Then he set off to war.
The separation was hard on them, and harder on him than her. For while she had the comfort of the child growing in her belly, he had only the other sailors and the deep, indifferent sea. He rushed through his days, living only for his dreams at night, ignorant of his wife’s pregnancy.
When he wasn’t sleeping or working, he sat on the deck of the ship and played songs of love on his harmonica. The wind caught his music up and carried it to the sea witch, who cannot love and so must steal it from others. She took the form of a great, ugly bird and came every evening to hear him play. He loathed the sight of her from the start. Every time she appeared he would run at her, yelling, “Shoo! Shoo, you ugly thing!” But she would simply fly up to the rigging and wait for him to play again.
One day she spoke to him. “Why do you hate me so?”
“Ugh!” he replied. “You are so ugly and you stare at me so intensely that it feels like you would steal my soul if you could.”
The ugly bird shook her feathered head sorrowfully. “I cannot help what I am,” she said. “Even my own kind drive me away. Your music gives me the only joy in my lonely life, and I spend my days waiting to hear it.” Tears welled up in her red, beady eyes. “And yet when I come to hear you play, you attack me. What have I ever done to you?”
John was ashamed of himself. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I am also alone and unhappy, and I see now that misery has made me cruel. How can I make it up to you? What song would you like to hear? I will play whatever you like.”
The wicked old bird cocked her head at him. “Truly, I would only like to know who to thank for this beautiful music.”
And he, in his shame and confusion, forgot his wife’s warning and delivered up his name.
As soon as he said it, his name became a fluttering butterfly that flew from his lips. The witch snapped it up in her great, ugly beak with a triumphant “CAW!” And they disappeared without a sound—man and monster alike. When the ship reached the next port, the captain wrote Arra to tell her that her husband was lost at sea, presumed dead.
And that is how Arra found herself, big with child, packing a bag and walking into the sea with nothing but a thread to guide her.
After the first three days, Arra lost track of how long she followed the thread along the ocean floor. Many times she wanted to turn back, but the thread led only forward, and behind was nothing but darkness and the creatures of the deep.
Finally, when she was out of food and wholly exhausted, certain she would die, she came upon a wondrous sight—a castle, majestic in the gloom. Its twisting spires were shaped like narwhal horns and seashells. A high wall encircled it, studded with skulls of drowned sailors and jewels from sunken treasure. Its gates were made of beaten gold and inlaid with mother of pearl, and they were locked tight. The thread ran right between them. Arra beat on the gates, her small fists making almost no sound at all, muffled by the pressing water. “Let me in!” she cried.
There was no answer.
“Let me in,” she demanded. She pounded until her fists were bruised, she shouted until her voice nearly gave out.
Finally, defeated, she slumped against the gate and said softly, “Please, please let me in. The best part of my heart lies inside.”
The gates swung silently open. She followed the thread right into the castle, into the most beautiful room she’d ever seen. A fire burned warmly in a huge fireplace, and a hot, nourishing meal sat on the table. There was one place set. “Hello?” she called. There was no answer. The thread became a tangle of refracted beams that led nowhere, barely visible in the soft firelight, but Arra was so enchanted by the welcoming castle that she didn’t notice. “Hello? Is anyone home?” She walked through richly appointed room after richly appointed room, calling out, but there was not a soul in sight. The castle was as silent as the ocean floor.
“Well,” she said thoughtfully, rubbing her pregnant belly, “there is more than enough food here to feed me and several others besides. Surely no one would mind if I ate a little. I must keep my strength up for the baby and the journey ahead.” And so she returned to the dining room and ate her fill.
Afterwards, she was so sleepy she felt she might pass out. “How strange that no one has come home yet. Well, surely they wouldn’t begrudge a pregnant woman a night’s sleep. I can introduce myself in the morning.” And so she went down the hall to a particularly inviting bedroom, and found a fire roaring, a hot bath drawn, and a pretty nightgown just her size laid out on the bed. And so she bathed, put on the nightgown, and climbed gratefully into bed.
When she awoke, she found the fire freshly tended and an elegant new dress laid out for her. Her old clothes were washed and mended, and hung in a wardrobe next to lovely garments that seemed made just for her. There was still no sign of any living being. She put on the elegant dress and made her way to the dining room where she once again found a sumptuous meal waiting for her, this time with two place settings, one occupied by a woman so beautiful that Arra felt ashamed of her own common manners and features.
The beautiful woman smiled. “Good morning! I was wondering when you would wake up. How did you sleep?”
Arra stammered shyly, “Very well, thank you. Better than I ever have before. Thank you for the clothes and the supper and the bath and everything. I hope you don’t mind. I couldn’t find anyone when I got here, and I was so hungry and tired.”
“Please, sit and enjoy breakfast with me. I so rarely have company. This is a treat. Which leads me to my next question: How did you get here? This is not an easy place to find!” She laughed like silver bells.
“My husband is at the other end of this thread, which I followed along the ocean floor. ” Arra gestured to the place her thread had once shone bright and true, and for the first time noticed that it was all but gone. “Oh!” She clutched at her heart and tried to grasp the thread, but the tangled beam slipped through her fingers. “Oh! What’s happened to it? I don’t understand! It led through your gates, right up to your door.” She looked earnestly into the woman’s eyes, “Please. My husband was reported lost at sea, but I know he still lives. Do you have a lost sailor here? This,” she gestured at the pale tangle, “was once a true path between us. And I followed it all this way to find him.”
The lady furrowed her delicate brow. “I’m afraid there is no one here but you and me, my dear. You are the first person to visit this castle in more than a hundred years. And I’m not sure what you mean about a thread. I see no thread. Perhaps you are still exhausted from your journey. Perhaps it was a fever dream. You need to rest and recover.”
Arra shook her head impatiently. “It was no dream. Are you certain there is no one else here? Maybe your servants brought someone in unbeknownst to you.”
The lady laughed again, “My darling girl, not a creature draws breath in this place but I know about it. Did I not lay out a warm and welcoming supper for you last night? Did I not have a fire burning and a bath drawn and the most perfect clothes all waiting for you when you needed them? I think I would know if some waterlogged sailor had washed through my door.” She paused as Arra frowned. “Forgive me. I do not mean to disrespect your beloved.” She gestured to the empty place setting beside her. “Please. Eat while we talk. Your baby needs nourishment as much as you do.”
Arra sat, and tried to conceal her growing anger and fear—for she now understood that she was in the home of a fearsome witch. “Thank you for saving my life and the life of my child,” she said cautiously. “You are very kind.”
“Well, I couldn’t just leave you out there to die with your heart full of love, now could I?” The sea witch smiled and patted Arra gently on the knee. “You know, my dear, I feel we are on our way to becoming fast friends. Tell me, what’s your name?”
Arra’s heart pounded as she remembered her tiny friend’s warning. “You may think me quite rude,” she said apologetically, “but my name is mine and mine alone. I’ll tell you anything else you want to know, but I can’t give you my name.”
The sea witch crooked an exquisite eyebrow in displeasure. “Child, I don’t know where you come from, but in this land that’s a poor way to treat someone to whom you owe your life.”
“I know. I mean no offense. I am indebted to you, and I will do and give anything else. I simply cannot tell you my name.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” said the sea witch thoughtfully, “because I just remembered that I do have a man here. I’d completely forgotten about him until just this moment. He’s out of his mind, of course, has no idea who or where he is. But he’s very handsome and he plays the harmonica beautifully. It’s a shame you have such bad manners, else I might let you see him.”
“Oh! I’m sure that’s my husband—please let me see him! I’ll do anything you want.”
“All you have to do, my darling girl, is remember your manners and tell me your name.”
Arra Mae’s voice quavered. “I can’t.”
“Well, then. It seems our time together is done. I’ll show you out.” She stood and gestured gracefully towards the door. At this, Arra abandoned her pride and her fear, and pleaded with all her might to see the mysterious man. Finally the sea witch said, “Since you are so pitiful,” she said, “I’ll strike a bargain with you. You may clean my kitchen and cook dinner for me and my guest this evening. You will serve us in the great dining room. If you speak a word to him—even one—you will find yourself outside the castle walls, and the magic that let you walk along the ocean floor will no longer protect you from the crushing cold. If he recognizes you, you may have him. If he does not, you must tell me your name.”
Arra eagerly agreed. “He will remember himself as soon as he sees me. I know he will.”
The woman chuckled. “I hope you’re a good cook, darling. I have a tremendous appetite. You might want to change back into your old clothes. You have a lot of work ahead of you.”
Soon thereafter, she led Arra Mae through a maze of corridors to a huge kitchen that smelled of rot and seaweed. “We dine at six o’clock sharp. Heaven help you if you’re late with it.” And with that, she turned and vanished into the maze.
“But…” Arra stared at the derelict kitchen in dismay, “where’s the food? Where…where’s the fire? There must be a mistake…” A century of filth rose around her, tangles of silverware, cracked dishes, empty pots encrusted with old food. The bones of mysterious animals were jammed into the drains.
As she stared at the mess and the empty cupboards, she remembered the golden shell her little friend had given her. She dug it from her pocket and cracked it open. A dozen tiny golden women bustled out of the shell. “Well,” they snapped, “what do you need? What do you want?”
“Please,” said Arra, “I need this kitchen cleaned and sorted, and I need to serve the best supper anyone’s ever eaten. Can you help me?”
The women laughed. “That’s it? That’s your only request?”
“I beg you. My life and my husband’s life depend on it.”
The little women snorted contemptuously, turned without a word and got to work. By six o’clock, the pots and pans were gleaming, the crystal shone, and even the cracked dishes had been mended. Just in time, they presented her with a cart piled high with the most delicious dinner she’d ever seen. “Oh, thank you so much! Is there anything I can do to repay you?”
“Even if there was,” they said, “you’d probably not be smart enough to do it.” And with that, they disappeared, leaving Arra staring at the empty shell on the kitchen floor.
Arra wheeled the cart through the maze to the opulent dining room. As she stood outside the door, she heard her husband’s voice, followed by the sea witch’s silver-bell laugh. Her heart leapt into her throat. She took a deep breath and pushed the cart into the room. The witch held John’s hand and laughed as he smiled into her eyes. Arra barely stopped herself from exclaiming aloud as the sea witch turned and put her finger to her lips in a “hush” gesture.
And so Arra served dinner silently to her husband and the sea witch. He looked at her once, puzzled. “Who is this? She looks familiar to me…”
Arra smiled at him with tears in her eyes.
“Oh, just a stray that wandered in from the deeps. I can’t imagine someone of your rank would know someone so low, my darling. Here, have some more asparagus. Did I mention that I want to take you on a tour of the kingdom tomorrow?”
He reached a tentative hand towards Arra. “Why are you crying?” he asked. But she could only shake her head, mindful of the sea witch’s threat.
The witch caught his outstretched hand in her own. “Pregnancy plays havoc with a woman’s moods, darling.” She dismissed Arra with a wave. “That will be all, girl. Clear the table and go have a good cry in the kitchen.” She turned to John and frowned sympathetically. “Poor thing.”
Arra numbly wheeled the cart back to the immaculate kitchen and sat, waiting.
“Poor dear,” said the witch when she finally came to the kitchen, “I told you he wouldn’t recognize you. He doesn’t even know himself. I’ve told him he’s a lost king. I like him. I may offer him my hand in marriage. What can you offer him? A shack on the beach? Your love? What are those things compared to the entire ocean kingdom?”
Arra wiped her tears away proudly. “My love and our child are kingdom enough for any man.”
The sea witch narrowed her eyes. “Hm. You have a point. I cannot offer him a child. Since you failed so miserably at your last task, I’ll offer you another chance to save yourself and your family. How about this? I’ll hide your name somewhere in the castle. You’ll work for me as my servant, honestly and excellently, as you have shown you can do. In your free time, you may look for your name. If you find it before the baby is born, you can all go home. But if you don’t, you are mine, your husband is mine and your baby is mine, too.”
The sea witch laughed her silver laugh. “And so, my darling, my dear, I ask you for the final time: What is your name?” Arra spoke and her name fluttered forth and hung in the air between them. The sea witch caught it easily and watched with pleasure as Arra’s clear, direct gaze clouded and slowly turned inwards. “How are you feeling, my love?”
Arra looked at her anxiously, vaguely. “I’m…I feel so strange. I think I’ve lost something, but I can’t remember what it is. Can you help me?”
“I’m afraid I can’t, my darling.” The witch took her elbow and gently led her towards the sink of dirty dishes. “Perhaps you’ll remember what it is while you’re washing the dishes. They say thinking about something else is a good way to recall what you’ve forgotten.”
Then the witch turned, drew her hand from her pocket and swallowed the delicate butterfly in one greedy gulp.
The days passed quickly after that, and soon they turned into weeks, and then months. She cooked meals and served them, making sure never to speak. She and John would look at one another with curiosity, but the witch always redirected his attention, and after each meal she’d remind Arra that she was never to speak to him. After each meal she’d call Arra into her sitting room so she could stroke Arra’s growing tummy. She’d ask with concern, “Did you find what you were looking for, my darling?”
Arra would shake her head in frustration. “No, ma’am. I’ve looked through every drawer in almost every room in the castle, but I haven’t found anything that looks like it.”
The sea witch would tsk-tsk sympathetically and rub Arra’s tummy. “Poor thing. Keep looking, my love, I’m sure you’ll find it.” Then she’d say, “This baby you’re carrying will rule this kingdom one day. It’s a noble task you’ve been charged with, carrying the royal heir. It’s quite an honor.”
“I know. It still makes me sad to think of giving it up.”
The sea witch would give her hand a sympathetic squeeze and say, “It’ll pass, darling. It’ll pass.”
And then one night it happened—the contractions began. Arra labored and struggled for hours while the sea witch watched with hungry eyes. When the baby was finally born, Arra hugged her close and cried fiercely, “I won’t give you up!”
“You made a bargain, my dear, and you must keep it. If you don’t give her to me, I will put you out to drown.” She took the baby girl and walked away. “Now my family is complete. I can’t wait to show my king.”
Arra followed her down the hall. “Give me back my baby!”
“Shut up, girl, and go back to your room! I’m almost out of patience with you.”
John wandered out sleepily. “What’s going on? Why are you shouting at each other?” His face softened when he saw the baby in the sea witch’s arms.
The sea witch purred at him, “Congratulations, my darling. I’d like to introduce you to our daughter. Now our family is complete…my king.”
Arra grabbed for the baby. “I don’t care if you put me out to drown. I won’t give up my daughter!”
When he heard Arra’s voice, John shook his head, as if he were trying to recover from a blow. He looked at her with new eyes, and his heart remembered his loving wife, even if her name was forgotten. He put an arm protectively around Arra and scolded the sea witch. “She should be in bed now, not chasing after her little one. What’s the harm in letting her keep her baby for just one night?”
The sea witch snapped, “That slut gambled her own baby away. She’s mine now!” He looked at her with revulsion as she corrected herself, “I mean ours. This beautiful baby is ours, my darling.” She bounced the tiny girl softly in her arms. “What is your name, little one? I have your mama’s name, and I have your papa’s name, but I haven’t got a name for you.”
At this the infant’s tiny eyes flew open and terrible golden light shone from them. “I know my mother’s name, witch,” the baby exclaimed. She pronounced Arra’s name, and the sea witch’s mouth flew open as if by force. Arra’s name fluttered out and landed gently on her lips.
“And I know my father’s name, too!” She pronounced John’s name, which flew from the witch’s mouth to his own. John and Arra truly recognized each other for the first time, and embraced joyfully.
The baby turned her gaze to the terrified witch, “And I know your name, too!”
When she pronounced the ugly syllables of the sea witch’s name, all the names the witch had ever stolen flew from the her mouth in a shimmering cloud. The witch writhed and shrieked, growing thinner and thinner, until, when the last name fluttered from her lips, she turned to dust and blew away.
And that is how Arra and John and their beautiful daughter (whose name is hers and hers alone) came to rule the kingdom under the sea wisely and well for the rest of their days.