A fairy tale about a young woman and the three seeds that are her mother's final gift to her. G, FM (no sex) 2002
This is born from a seed planted by a dream, at a time when I was re-reading the un-expurgated Grimm's Tales.
Biting her lip to hold back her tears, Cat stood by the back door, scattering grain for the brown hens and the speckled rooster. The garden awaited her attention still, but how was she to concentrate on pulling weeds while her mother, her only family, lay ill and dying? Even from here, she could hear the dry raw coughing, and it made her wince.
How could Crystal, of all people, die of something so ordinary? Cat had heard the tale for as long as she could remember. One spring day, a woman walked into the village, alone. She gave her name as Crystal, and found a home with an old and increasingly crippled widower, helping with his house and his few animals. Whispers began when it became obvious that she was with child, and they grew stronger when she gave birth to a daughter on Midsummer's Eve. Crystal ignored the whispers, cared for the widower and her fatherless daughter, and earned a measure of wary respect for her herb skill. In her third winter there, the widower died in his sleep, and the house became Crystal's own. Crystal had never spoken to anyone, even Cat, about her own past before she came here.
And now she was dying, and Cat would be alone in the house that had been her mother's for so long.
She tossed the last of the grain, set the basket down, and dusted her hands on her skirt. Well, the white goat was taken care of already, and she hadn't the heart to weed the garden. She pushed the door open and went back inside. There'd be work to do indoors, too; at the moment, there was always all the work she had time for, and then some.
The interior of the house was a single large room, holding a wooden table, a couple of chairs, a wooden chest, and Crystal's bed; Cat's bed was in the loft, surrounded by hanging bunches of herbs and vegetables.
Crystal lay propped up on pillows, warmly covered despite the comfortable late-spring temperature. In her health, she'd ben tall and strong, wide-hipped and full-breasted like her daughter, though her hair was lighter than Cat's reddish-brown. Facial features, too, marked them as kin--not striking, nor the delicacy of a princess, but attractive enough to win each of them a number of hopeful suitors.
Now, though, illness had drained Crystal to a wraith, translucent pale skin over bone; it made her look tiny in the large bed.
Crystal turned her head towards her and opened her eyes, violet-blue to Cat's startling green. "Cat. Come here."
Cat hastened across the room to perch on the edge of the bed. "I'm here."
"Go look... in my chest. There's... a box... wrapped in velvet." Her voice rasped with the effort of not coughing.
Cat obediently rose. "Should I put the kettle on?"
"No. The box."
Cat knelt before the cedar chest, opened it carefully, and searched through her mother's extra clothes and sundry possessions. She touched soft material over hardness, brought it out, and unwrapped it.
The box was small enough to fit on her palm, made of some dark wood wonderfully carved with vines and leaves and flowers. She brought it to her mother.
"It's so beautiful."
Crystal smiled. "Open it."
The top tilted back smoothly to reveal a nest of milkweed down and thistledown cradling three seeds. They were like none she'd ever seen, smooth and nut?solid, silvery, but one had a rosy tint, one was faintly tawny, and the third was touched with violet.
"Plant these," Crystal said. "And care for them well. They are... the best I can leave you." Her hand trembled as she reached up to touch Cat's cheek. "I love you."
Cat kissed her mother's cheek. "I love you," she echoed softly. "I promise I'll take care of them."
"Good. Now... please... tea?"
Cat closed the box and set it safely on a shelf, and turned to the familiar task of making the herb tea that would ease Crystal's cough and help her rest peacefully.
* * *
When Cat planted the seeds, half a moon cycle later, she watered them with her tears. Even a few days alone in the house with only her cat Mouse for company already felt like forever.
She busied herself with work, though. The chickens, the garden, the goat. The three seeds sprouted immediately and began to grow with surprising speed. By the time they lost their silvery-green star-shaped leaves for the winter, all three had become pale-barked saplings taller than Cat. She wondered at--and about--them daily, but cared for them faithfully.
Spring came, after a hard and lonely winter, and the saplings scarcely had their leaves back before they began to grow again. They reached the size and spread of small trees, and then flowered in a glorious display. One tree had blossoms of vivid crimson, one blossoms of a yellow that all but glowed, and the third blossoms of violet touched with blue on the edges, rosy-hearted.
Cat was beyond being surprised that the flowers appeared to be unique, but she marvelled at their beauty anyway. She picked a few to bring into the house, and their scent was sweet and soothing. Even Mouse seemed to like it: Cat sometimes saw her sleeping under or in the trees.
Cat rose on the morning of her birthday, the day before Midsummer, to find that some of the flowers of the red tree had become fruit of the same hue, plum-like but larger. She picked one and bit into it, and closed her eyes in pleasure. She relished every bite, licked the tangy juice from her fingers. Surely nothing else in the world tasted so delicious!
The fruit was too soft to keep well, and the tree was heavy with it; she could never eat it all before it spoiled. Thoughtful, she ate another, a little startled that the fruit had no seeds within, and started on her daily chores.
Later she returned to the tree with a basket. Even when she'd picked enough to fill it, and it was of respectable size, there was plenty left, and the remaining flowers might yet make more. She'd never heard of a fruit tree that grew so quickly and bore so much so young, but she'd never heard of anything like the fruit, either. She picked a few flowers to arrange attractively around the fruit.
She often went to the market to sell the baskets she wove, the herbs she grew or gathered, the eggs the hens laid. She hadn't planned to go today, but surely such fruit would sell well, the day before a holiday.
Cat found herself a bit of ground in the village square and sat down with her basket.
One of her neighbours ventured near. "What are you selling?"
"My mother never told me their name, but they taste wonderful. Here, try one."
The woman took the offered sample, and her eyes widened. "Oh my. How many will you give me for a loaf of my best bread?"
They bargained for a moment, and the woman left the bread and took away six of the red fruits.
The butcher traded a chain of sausage links for six more, and a farmer traded her a pot of honey for six, and another farmer traded her a round of cheese for the seven remaining.
Cat walked home and made herself a very pleasant birthday supper, sharing the sausage and cheese generously with Mouse.
The next day, she heard the unfamiliar sound of many hooves on the road. She left the garden and circled the house curiously.
There were some half a dozen horses, neither shaggy little ponies nor great rangy farm-horses, but sleek and graceful, in expensive gear that was no less fancy than the clothing of their riders. A gold circlet gleamed on the forehead of the leader, a blonde man not many years her elder--the young Duke himself. They drew to a halt in front of her.
Cat curtsied hastily. "My lord."
The Duke regarded her appraisingly. "You're the one called Cat?"
"My mother named me so, my lord."
"You are the one who was selling marvellous fruit in the market yesterday?"
"Yes, my lord."
"I would see this fruit."
"I'll fetch you some, my lord." Cat curtsied again and hastened inside to get the bowl of fruit she'd picked for herself. She returned and held it up so the Duke could choose one.
He took a small bite, then, his expression not changing, a larger one. "It appears that the tale didn't exaggerate. Where is the tree?"
"Behind the house, my lord."
He touched his white horse with his heels, and Cat moved quickly aside. "Show me."
The Duke didn't dismount as he followed her around the house, and his companions trailed behind, murmuring to one another.
The Duke eyed the tree. "Splendid. I'll take every one. Name your price, but I must have them today, as soon as possible."
"I... my lord, I don't know what price to set...."
"Oh come now, there must be something you want."
A buckskin mare shied violently as a bumblebee buzzed past, practically under her nose, headed for the flowers; her rider jerked her head around roughly and began to lash her hindquarters savagely with his crop.
"Stop!" Cat cried, horrified.
The Duke glanced over his shoulder and shrugged. "It's his horse, he can do as he likes."
"That horse! That's what I want! Give it to me, my lord, and I'll pick all the fruit for you!"
The Duke considered. Cat winced, as a bloody streak appeared on the bright tawny hide. "You do realize that you don't have the resources to care for a horse of her blood?"
"That's my problem, my lord. I'll manage. Her, now, and the fruit is yours."
He shrugged again. "As you will. Arven, off the mare."
"You'd have me walk, my lord?" the displaced Arven said, outraged.
"You can ride double with someone else. Tie her somewhere. I'll send for the fruit an hour before sunset, and I'll expect it to be ready."
Arven sullenly dismounted and tied the reins to the fence ringing the goat-pen.
"It will be, my lord."
Without another word, he wheeled his mount away. Arven glowered at her, perched behind one of the others on a big chestnut.
Cat felt like collapsing in relief. Instead, she hastened to the mare, who rolled her eyes and danced back as far as the reins would allow. Cat bit her lip, then fetched a long rope and approached more slowly, offering one of the crimson fruits on her palm. Warily, the mare lipped it, then accepted it. Speaking soothingly, Cat puzzled out all the buckles on the fancy gear and dumped it on the ground, then tied the rope around the mare's neck and slid the bridle off. The little prongs on the bit made her stomach turn.
She coaxed the mare over to the purple tree and tied the rope to a branch, short enough that she wouldn't tangle her legs, but long enough to let her graze, and fetched her a pail of water from the stream.
Then she got to work picking fruit.
Her three largest baskets held it all, but she was exhausted by the time she finished. She stumbled through her evening chores and fell asleep, too tired to get washed and dressed and take part in the village celebration.
She named the mare Dancer, and did her best to win her trust and to care for her. At times, she wondered what she'd do with a horse come winter; probably it would be best to calm her and then sell her. However much she quickly grew to love the mare, surely that was the only practical option.
A few days later, the yellow tree's fruit appeared. Delicious, as well, but the taste was richer and fuller, less tart.
Again, Cat took a basket to market.
The chandler gave her a bundle of scented candles; a farmer gave her bacon; the cobbler offered her new boots for the fruit that remained.
The Duke returned the next day, with his companions.
"So, then, more fruit?"
Cat curtsied. "From another tree, my lord. Will you come and see?"
"Yes." He sent his white horse into a canter around the house. By the time Cat caught up, he'd plucked a yellow fruit and bitten into it.
"This is every bit as good. All of it, today, and you may name your price." His smile mocked her. "Another horse, perhaps?"
Cat bit back a sharp retort, and said the first useful thing that came to mind. "Your purse, my lord, with whatever is presently in it."
"Ah, so you do have a certain degree of sense." He unfastened it from his belt and tossed it to her. "All of it, by an hour before sunset."
"Yes, my lord."
The young Duke and his companions rode away.
Cat left the purse in the house--it mattered little enough what it held, she was only grateful the Duke had left. She made a mental note to weave more baskets before the third tree could fruit: she had to use her household baskets to contain the golden fruit, which was even more abundant than the crimson had been. Again exhausted, she turned it over to the Duke's messenger, and barely managed evening chores before falling asleep.
She spent what time she could in the next few days busily plaiting baskets, and when the purple tree's gruit came, she was glad of her foresight. It was a wonder such a small tree could hold so very much fruit. The taste of this was softer, sweeter.
As before, she took a basket of it to the market. One offered a bag of flour, another three choice fish, the potter a lovely green-glazed drinking-bowl.
Mouse of course delighted in sharing the fish.
It seemed likely that the Duke would return, and pondered what she could ask in payment for the lush violet fruit with its rosy highlights. She had enough coin already that she need not fear ill fortune for quite some time; if the trees stayed healthy, even if the Duke lost interest next year she'd be able to trade comfortably with her neighbours. In fact, her bartering with them was of more use to her. She could think of nothing she wanted or needed.
She rose at her usual time, did morning chores, and was busy filling a basket with violet fruit when the Duke arrived.
"Now you think you can predict me?"
"No, my lord. If you were to come today, I thought I'd have made a beginning already. And if not, I'd have fruit picked for my own table and to trade to others."
"Ah, yes, and I've heard what riches you get that way." His eyes narrowed as he looked her over. "You're pretty, for a peasant. You live here completely alone, don't you?"
"With my animals, my lord."
He made a dismissive gesture. "Come live in the keep. You can bring the mare, she'll be tended in the stable and you can ride her when you please. We can arrange for some more attractive clothes, you'll have your own room, and servants to obey you. I can't marry you, of course, but I'm sure I can make you feel... welcome."
The sheer forwardness of the proposition stunned her, drove any plans from her mind. "I... my lord... I...."
He smiled down at her. "It's natural to feel overwhelmed. Take a few days to get used to the idea, and I'll send someone for you. As for the fruit, what price will you ask?"
"P... please, my lord, you've been so generous... please, take these as a gift.... I'll have them picked for you by an hour before sunset."
The Duke looked grave, but she had the uncomfortable feeling that triumph lay in his eyes. "A fair gift, and I thank you." He half-bowed in his saddle. "Until we meet at the keep, be well."
As soon as they rounded the house, out of her sight, Cat sank down, trembling. She'd heard stories enough about the Duke to be sure he wouldn't accept refusal from her. Was it truly her he wanted? Or the trees?
No matter. She had only two choices. She could surrender herself to the Duke. Or she could flee.
Leave the only place she'd ever been?
But she had Dancer, and money, two major advantages. And there was a certain excitement in the idea of travelling. Was this, or something like it, how her mother had happened to come here alone?
The longer she thought, the more reasonable it all seemed. Plans began to hatch in her mind. They'd have to wait until tomorrow to carry them out, but her mind toyed with them and refined them as she worked.
The following day, she slung Dancer's saddle on the mare's back. She refused to put the bridle on her, so she hung it on the saddle and led the mare on a rope.
She went to the village leathercrafter, and bargained with him for a simple saddle and bridle for Dancer in exchange for the fancy gear. Then she took Dancer to the blacksmith for new shoes, and left her there while she took care of other bargaining. She couldn't take the goat or the chickens, so she bartered them away for things she thought might be of use: a new wool cloak, food that would travel well, sundry odds and ends. Reclaiming Dancer, she rode home with her new saddlebags well-packed.
The new owners of the goat and chickens came for them the day after. They looked oddly at her, and ventured tentative probes, which went no farther when Cat refused to respond. She spent the day packing everything she wished to keep; it all fit neatly behind Dancer's saddle. Come morning she would leave, early.
Just past dawn, she stepped out the back door, Mouse cradled in one arm.
She halted immediately, staring at the trees.
All three were utterly bare of leaves, flowers, or fruit.
Stunned, she made her way across the yard to them, setting Mouse down gently. Close to them, she discovered that each bore yet one thing: a nut twin to the seeds she had planted a year ago.
She picked them, and stood for a moment, gazing at the nuts. Her mother's final gift needn't be left behind; it was coming with her! Her relief and joy did much to counteract her sorrow at leaving her home forever.
With Dancer saddled, and Mouse coaxed into sitting behind her on the rolled-up cloak, Cat turned the mare's head away from the village and nudged with her heels. Dancer responded as smoothly as she had in their practice sessions.
Sheer exhilaration overwhelmed the last of her sense of loss. What must the world be like, outside this one village? She could hardly wait to find out.