The Miller’s Daughters
By Stirling Edgewood
Once upon a time, there was a grand kingdom, filled with mighty rivers, majestic mountains, mysterious forests, and fertile plains. In a far corner of the kingdom, was a little village. In that village, there lived a miller. This miller was hard working and prosperous. He lived with his wife and many children. The miller raised his children to be honest and hardworking, and he told them, “Always demand an honest day’s wages for an honest day’s work, and never settle for a shilling less nor a shekel more.”
Among his children, the miller had three daughters. These daughters were virtuous and dutiful. Every day, they cooked and cleaned, stitched and sowed, and did everything, little and large, to keep their household ordered and harmonious.
Now in this village, on one night each week, in the village square, the people came together to dance. The girls loved to dance, and the day of each dance, they always would ask the miller, “May we go to the dance tonight?”
To which the miller would always reply, “Only after you have finished your work.”
The girls would work furiously throughout the day, with thoughts of the delightful evening to come filling them with energy. When finally their chores were done, though weary and sore from their many labors, the three sisters would go to the village square. They loved the dance. Their bodies would sway with the intoxicating rhythms, their legs kicking up dust, their skirts swirling, their feet tapping, their arms undulating, and even their heads bobbing in perfect harmony with the music. They knew every step to every dance, and never skipped or tripped or missed a beat. The villagers were amazed. They cheered as they entered the square, and praised them for their grace and poise. The boys of the town lined up for the chance to beg for their hands for each dance, and sometimes even fought among themselves for the privilege of dancing with one of the elegant three.
“You should go to the Hollow Wood,” the villagers would say. “The prince lives there in a majestic castle, and every night he holds an elegant ball, where they dance all night. You dance so beautifully, surely the prince himself would dance with you.” And as the girls danced in their plain dresses, with the clumsy village boys, they would dream they were dancing in fabulous ball gowns with a handsome prince.
One day, on the day of the dance, a woman came to the village. She told the villagers that she had been to the Hollow Wood, and danced at the Prince’s Ball. She promised to teach them all the new dances that were done at the Prince’s Ball, even the favorites of the prince himself. The villagers were skeptical, and they laughed at her when she struck a dancer’s pose. But when the time for the dance came, she appeared in the town square wearing a gown. Though the gown was a bit faded and worn, it was still quite elegant.
She danced with such effortless grace and sublime beauty, the villagers could not help but stare in awe. The Miller’s daughters begged her to teach them the steps of the dances, and she obliged with a charming graciousness.
“Do we dance elegantly enough for the Prince’s ball?” the three girls asked her timidly.
“Indeed, you do dance beautifully,” the woman replied.
“Should we go to the Hollow Wood?” they queried hopefully.
“The journey to the Hollow Wood is long and filled with tricksters and charlatans,” she replied. “Many who set out find themselves in strange places indeed,” she replied discouragingly.
“Would the Prince invite us to the ball?” they persisted. “Would he dance with us?”
“The Prince, like fortune, is fickle and foolish. There is no knowing whether he would invite you, much less offer you a dance.”
But the girls, swept up in their passion, began to dream of fabulous gowns and charming nobles. “We must go to the Hollow Wood!” exclaimed one. “We will surely be invited to the ball!” said another. “And dance with the Prince!” shouted the third.
“I would counsel against it,” said the woman gingerly. “Your dancing is wondrous, and joyful to behold. It is a gift to all who see it. It would be better for you to share it with the people of this village, whom you love, and who love you in return. In the Hollow Wood, you can only share it with strangers, who will love only your dancing, and care not a whit for you. And they will want so much more from you than dancing. More than a wise woman is willing to give.”
“Are we not talented enough?” Begged the girls.
“You certainly are talented. But the hollow Wood has many talented dancers. It takes much more than talent to get to the Ball.”
But the girls were swept up in their enthusiasm. At the end of the dance, they rushed home, and announced to the Miller and his wife that they would go to the Hollow Wood.
The Miller and his wife advised them not to go, but they could not be dissuaded. “Well,” said the Miller, who was dirty from an honest day’s work at the mill, and filled the room with the familiar smell of sweat and flour, “if you must go, you will need warm clothes, sturdy boots, and food for your journey.”
“And beautiful gowns to wear to the ball!” his daughters added.
“Yes, ball gowns too,” added the Miller with a sly smile. “You couldn’t possibly set off without those. Yet how will you pay for such things?” asked the Miller.
The girls were disappointed, because in their minds they dreamed of leaving in the morning. And though they pleaded with the Miller to give, or at least loan them, the funds to buy what they needed, he simply replied. “I will give you only an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, and neither a shilling less, nor a shekel more.”
The girls were sad and in despair. “Surely, there must be some way we can go to the Hollow Wood,” they said.
“Life has no short cuts.” responded the Miller.
“Perhaps if we work extra hard and long at our chores, we can earn our way,” the sisters persisted.
The Miller thought this over for a moment, and then, with wise frown, said, “Yes, I will give you wages in equal to your efforts. In this way you will prove that you truly want to live this dream, and are not swept up in a fantasy. And while you work, perhaps you will find in the sweat and soreness, a love of the ordinary way of life, and discover that the quiet, simple life of this little village is a joyful one.”
For the next month, the girls worked from the first crow of the rooster in the morning until long after the sun went down. At night, they would ease the pains of their sore muscles, blistered hands, and aching feet by imagining the wonders of the Hollow Wood and the prince’s ball.
At the end of the month, the Miller paid the girls what they had earned, and neither a shilling less nor a shekel more. The girls set off to the market to buy fabrics and thread, leather and nails, ribbon and lace, and all the things they needed. When they got home, they immediately set to knitting and weaving, cutting and hammering, stitching and sewing. When they were through, each had their own traveling cloak, sturdy and warm, walking shoes, durable and comfortable, and ball gown, stylish and elegant.
The next day, they set of for the Hollow Wood, with looks of disappointment from their older siblings, envy from the younger ones, and endless streams of advice from their parents. But nonetheless, from their whole family, sorrow at their departure, and hopes for their good fortune.
They started off with eager briskness, with the quick, purposeful steps of anticipated adventure. But they soon found the journey to be rather dull, since the next mile of road seemed not much different from the last, at least not in any interesting way. And they certainly did not encounter anything as glamorous as the balls of the Hollow Wood.
To pass the time, they got into the habit of dancing down the road, moving to the rhythms of imagined music, rehearsing all the dances they had learned, and even inventing new dances of their own. This often drew the attention of other travelers on the road, who would smile or sneer, clap or jeer, as was their wont, at the spectacle of three girls dancing down the road. In this way, they met many curious travelers.
One day, while dancing past a stopped wagon, a man called out to them, “Where are you going, dancing that way?”
“To the Hollow Wood,” The sisters replied, “where we will go to the ball, and dance with the prince!”
The man was seated by a campfire, sipping from an elegant cup. “Come, sit by the fire, warm yourselves and rest your weary feet.”
“We are rather tired from our travels,” said the youngest sister.
“And the road is rather chill today,” said the middle sister.
“Very well, then,” said the oldest, “we will rest for a spell. But be wary, the journey to the Hollow Wood is long and filled with tricksters and charlatans.”
As they walked toward the fire, they travelled past the wagon. It was large and covered with canvas. Tied to the back of the wagon were three burly, nasty-looking dogs, who were loudly fighting over a bone. From within the wagon came an irregular pounding, as if some strange mechanical device were at work there.
When they settled themselves near the fire, the man said, “I am Sir Joseph Francis, Lord of Rotherham, and I have been to the Prince’s Ball at the Hollow Wood many times.” Then he told them tales of the Hollow Wood and the ball that were even more fantastic and amazing than anything the girls had imagined. “Fortune smiles on you today, for I have been commissioned by the Prince to seek out the finest dancers in the kingdom, and bring them to the Hollow Wood to meet the Prince. I am now on my way to the Hollow Wood, and have just enough space in my wagon for three more.”
The eyes of the youngest and middle sisters grew wide with excitement at their apparent good luck, but the eyes of the oldest sister narrowed with suspicion. “Your offer is very kind,” she replied, “but we have sturdy shoes and warm cloaks, and would rather dance our way to the Hollow Wood, and not grow fat and lazy in a wagon. Life has no short cuts.”
“Very well then,” said the man, looking disappointed. “Let me at least offer you some tea before you go.” Then he poured them each a cup from a kettle hung over the fire. The oldest sister took a sip, and it burned from the heat of the fire, but also from something else, something sinister and dangerous.
“I do not like this tea,” she announced. “Sisters, do not drink it.”
The middle sister immediately put her cup down untasted, but the youngest sister decided to try it for herself.
“I rather like it,” she declared, and drank the whole cup down.
“Well,” said the man, “thank you for your pleasant company, and remember that my wagon will always welcome you, should you change your mind.”
As the sisters got up to leave, he called out, “Please, you dance so beautifully, give me just one more dance before you go.”
“No,” said the oldest sister, “we have many miles to travel, and would like to get as many as possible behind us before nightfall”
“Well,” called out Lord Francis, “Travelling comfortably in my speedy wagon, I will arrive in the Hollow Wood long before you. I will tell the prince about the three beautiful dancing sisters walking the long weary miles to the Hollow Wood, and he will anticipate your coming. But I can only do so if I have seen your dancing enough to judge it properly.”
The youngest and middle sisters began to dance for the man, but the oldest sister, overcome with suspicion and curiosity about the strange knocking inside the wagon, walked over to it. She lifted a flap of canvas to peer inside, and was surprised by what she saw. Young girls and boys, much her same age, were busy with mallets.
“What are you doing?” She asked.
“Pounding.” Said one boy, looking up from his labor.
“Pounding what?” She asked.
“The yew.” Said a girl.
“The yew?” she asked perplexed. “As in the yew tree?”
The girl replied, “Yes, the yew tree. In the stout heart of the yew tree, lies the meat. We are given the meat from these stout hearts, and we pound it until it is a soft hash.”
“We are the Pound-Meat-Yews,” declared another boy.
“Whatever for?” the oldest sister asked.
“It is quite a delicacy in the Hollow Wood. A favorite of all Lords and Ladies, and particularly the Prince. That is why it is called the Hollow Wood, you know. The forest of yews around the city are all hollow. They take the heart of yew and pound yew into a weak pulp that they can shape into any form they like. Then, they eat yew.”
The sister noticed a foul smell coming from the wagon, and wrinkled her nose. “I rather think I would not like this delicacy, it smells dreadful.”
“This is how we earn our way to the Hollow Wood,” added the boy. “Lord Francis of Rotherham is taking us there!”
“Are you sure we are going to the Hollow Wood?” asked another girl, looking worried. “We have been travelling in the wagon a very long time, but never seem to get there.”
“Shush,” said another girl. “Lord Francis has promised us. Have some more tea, that will calm your worries,” she suggested, and handed her a jug.
The oldest sister let the flap drop, and turned around to the spectacle of her sisters dancing. The middle sister was dancing gracefully and in time. But the youngest, while seeming exuberant and energetic, was dancing terribly. She was late with her steps, and moving clumsily. Lord Francis was loudly encouraging them.
“Come sisters,” the oldest sister said sternly, “it is time for us to go.”
The middle sister turned and walked toward her, but the youngest sister kept on dancing in that awkward way. “I wan shtayyy.” She drawled. “I don wan walk allaway to da Hollowwww W-w-woood.”
“Excellent!” exclaimed Lord Francis, leaping to his feet. He rushed over to the youngest sister.
“You will certainly not stay!” declared the oldest sister, grabbing the youngest sister by the arm.
“But she has already decided,” Lord Francis informed her.
“We are sisters, and we will stay together.” Said the oldest sister firmly. But Lord Francis went to the back of his wagon and let loose his dogs. “Attack!” he shouted, pointing at the two older sisters.
The dogs ran at the oldest and middle sister, growling and snapping, while Lord Francis held tight to the youngest sister. In terror they fled down the road. After a long chase, when they were ready to collapse, they heard a whistle. The dogs stopped, and scampered back up the road.
The sisters collapsed to the ground with weariness, but then, looking around, and not seeing the youngest sister, they jumped up.
“We must find our sister!” the middle sister exclaimed.
“We must save her from that horrible man!” shouted the oldest sister.
They ran back up the road, but when they came to the campsite, the wagon was gone. They cried out in despair, “Where could she be?”
They searched the up and down the road, and through the wood, but found no trace of the vile Lord Francis, his wagon, or their sister. They wept in despair.
There was nothing more they could do. Wearily, sadly, they went back to the road, dancing a slow, sorrowful dance toward the Hollow Wood.
Some days later, early one rainy morning, the sisters were dancing down the road when a tired looking young man passed them by on his wagon. His cloak was torn and his boots were so old and worn they were falling off his feet, leaving him quite wet and miserable.
“Hah! A fine day to be dancing!” He jeered at them.
“When the rain dampens our spirits, dancing brings us joy again,” replied the oldest sister cheerfully.
The man stopped his wagon, and watched the sister’s dance for a few moments. “You do dance with uncommon grace. But can you mend a cloak or cobble a boot?” He asked.
“We can,” said the oldest sister.
“Indeed,” added the middle sister. “We tailored these cloaks and cobbled these boots ourselves. And we are quite dry and comfortable, even on damp day like this.”
The man looked at their cloaks and boots while stroking his chin. Although dirty from the road, he judged them to be of fine quality. “Perhaps you could be of service to me then. I am the miller in the village just up the road. Our village seamstress has run off with the cobbler, and I am in sore need of better garments to keep out this wet weather. If you can put my clothes and boots in order, I will pay you and give you a hot meal and dry place to sleep.”
“Have you no wife or mother to mend them?” The middle sister asked.
“My father died, and the mill was left to me,” the young miller explained. “I have no brothers to help with the mill, so I am busy night and day, and have no time to mend my clothes, let alone find a wife. And my mother has taken ill and gone to live with my sister and her husband in another village. I have no one to help me.”
The sisters talked among themselves for a moment, and were overcome with a mixture of pity and the temptation of a hot meal and dry place to sleep. Then the older sister announced, “We like this arrangement. We will stay for a night, but then we must get back on the road to the Hollow Wood.”
“Very well then,” said the young miller, “climb into the wagon and I will take you to my mill.”
As the sisters climbed into the wagon, the young miller warned them, “But I will give you only a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work, and neither a shilling less nor a shekel more.”
When he spoke these words, the middle sister turned and stared at him for a heartbeat.
During the wagon ride, the rain stopped, the sun came out, and the sisters and the young miller began to dry out. When they reached the mill, they could see things were in much disarray, with piles of dirty clothes, tattered boots, and inches of dust on everything. The girls, who were used to dancing down the road all day long, felt cramped from the wagon ride.
“Does your village have dances?” asked the oldest sister.
“Yes, there will be one tonight,” replied the young miller.
“We should go to the dance then,” said the middle sister excitedly.
“Only after you have finished your work,” instructed the young miller. At these words the middle sister stared at him again.
The sisters set about patching and sewing, cobbling and cleaning, until the day was old and their hands were weary. The young miller came quietly into the room where the sisters were finishing their work, shining the young millers now beautifully repaired boots. Although she did not see him at first, the familiar smell of sweat and flour that she knew so well made the middle sister turn around. She stared at the young miller for a heartbeat.
“How is the work progressing?” he asked.
At the sound of his voice, the oldest sister turned around then, and said proudly, “We have patched your boots and clothes, cleaned the kitchen, and cooked a fine pot of stew.”
The young miller was amazed at how much work the sisters had done. “You have done the work of four maids, and in only half a day!” he exclaimed. He looked at what the sisters had accomplished. “And very fine workmanship too,” he said appreciatively. And the young miller paid them each twice an honest day’s wage for they had done two honest day’s work.
“Let’s eat. Then we will go to the dance,” announced the oldest sister.
When the young miller tasted the stew, he said, “This is delicious. It reminds me of my mother’s stew.”
The middle sister said quickly, “I made the stew while my sister mended the cloaks.”
The young miller stared at her for a heartbeat.
When they had finished their meal, the middle sister said to the young miller, “Will you come with us to the dance.”
“I have no time for dancing,” said the young miller.
“It will be so much nicer if you come too,” said the middle sister, smiling shyly.
“Well,” replied the Miller, “since you have done so much for me today, perhaps I can spare an evening. I will come.”
The middle sister smiled again.
At the dance, the sisters amazed and entertained the villagers with their dancing. Many villagers invited them to their homes to share a meal and spend the night in return for their beautiful dancing, but they always replied that they were staying only one night at the miller’s.
At the end of one dance, the young miller said, “You dance so wonderfully. My mother used to dance that way.” And he stared at the middle sister for a heartbeat.
“Come dance with me,” the middle sister suggested.
“I am not much of a dancer, since I am always at the mill, and have no time to dance,” protested the young miller.
“Tonight, at least, you do have time,” said the middle sister.
The young miller got up and danced with the middle sister. And although he was clumsy, and often out of step, both he and the middle sister enjoyed themselves, and danced many dances together that night.
The next morning, as the sisters were putting on their cloaks and preparing to take their leave, the miller said, “You have been such a wonderful help, and such enjoyable company, I would dearly love you if you were to stay.”
The older sister replied, “We have many miles to go, and should be on our way.”
“But I am so much in need of someone to help with the household. Perhaps a week or so, as my maid, with hot meals and warm beds, will restore your vigor, and allow you to travel more quickly.”
“No, we must—“ began the older sister. But she was cut off by the middle sister.
“Perhaps” began the middle sister, “I could stay. But not as your maid,” She announced.
The Miller looked puzzled for a moment, but then noticed how the middle sister was smiling at him.
That day, in a little church at the top of a hill, the young miller wed the middle sister. The whole village put down their tools and celebrated with a great feast and much dancing. When the feast was over, the middle sister and the young miller begged the oldest sister to stay with them. But with joy for her sister and sadness at leaving her behind, she decided to travel on. For her heart was set on reaching the Hollow Wood, and dancing at the Prince’s Ball.
After many days of travelling, the oldest sister came to the Hollow Wood. She walked through the city’s streets until she came to the palace. Sitting on the ground near the palace was a girl, much her same age, looking tired and sad.
The oldest sister asked her “Have you come to dance at the Prince’s Ball?”
“Yes,” said the girl, “but I fear I will never get to dance there.”
The oldest sister drew near to her, and as she did, her nose wrinkled. The girl smelled unpleasant. It was a scent she had smelled somewhere before.
“Why do you say that?” asked the oldest sister.
“Well, I have been here many days, and still I have not gotten an invitation,” the girl explained. “The guard at the palace gate said that if I were to pound the meat of the yew, he would make sure my request to attend the ball would go straight to the prince.
It was then that the oldest sister remembered the nasty Lord Francis of Rotherham, and his ugly wagon.
“So I did,” the girl continued. “I was so tired of waiting,” she explained. “Yet he still tells me that the prince has not invited me, and I must await his pleasure.”
“That seems rather dishonest,” remarked the oldest sister.
“Yes,” said the girl sadly. “Perhaps I should just go back to my village.”
The oldest sister was overcome with pity, and felt the urge to hug her. But the smell of the yew was so overpowering, that she could not bring herself any closer than a few steps from the sad girl.
Then the oldest sister went to the guard at the gate, and said, “I have come from Flover Village, in the Crimson Counties, and request an invitation to the Prince’s Ball.”
“The Prince’s Ball?” said the guard. “Many come to dance, but the ballroom is not infinite. Only a few get invited. Many wait a long time to get an invitation. Many get no invitation at all.”
“Still, I would like to enter my request,” persisted the oldest sister.
“Well,” said the guard, “there are ways of getting noticed by the prince, and hastening the day when he invites you to the ball. A man like me, who has been around the palace, knows these things. Why, I myself am friends with the Prince, and have influence over his choice,” boasted the guard.
“And how might one make the Prince more inclined to extend an invitation to the Ball?” inquired the oldest sister suspiciously.
“Well, I could possibly help you,” offered the guard. “But first you must do something for me. I have a certain amount of yew that needs pounding, and in exchange for that, I would put in a good word for you with the Prince.”
“I think not,” said the oldest sister, remembering the poor, smelly girl in the street. “But still, I would like to enter my request for an invitation.”
“Very well then,” replied the guard stiffly. He opened a thick book, and turned through many pages of names before he found a blank space where the list of names ended, and wrote down her name.
“What shall I do in the Hollow Wood while I wait for my invitation?”
“Perhaps you could push the bar,” suggested the guard. “Many who wait for an invitation to the Ball do that.”
So she went to the place where they pushed the bar. There a man told her she would be paid for pushing the bar, usually an honest day’s pay, but sometimes a shilling less, and sometimes a shekel more.
“And always push the bar to the east, never to the north or south, and certainly not to the west,” he warned her.
She saw many people pushing a large bar, most young like herself, but some quite old. She saw an open place along the bar, and went there and began to push.
“Why do we push the bar to the east?” She asked the boy next to her.
“Why, because we are the Bar-Easters.” He declared.
The oldest sister spent many days pushing the bar, waiting for her invitation. Each day, after pushing the bar, she would return to the palace to ask if the prince had selected her for an invitation. And each day the guard simply said, “If the Prince decides to invite you, he will send you an invitation.” Each night, though weary from her work as a Bar-Easter, she practiced her dancing, so that she would be ready when her invitation finally came.
After a particularly long, hard day of pushing the bar, and being paid a shilling less than an honest day’s wage, she was on the verge of despair.
She was resting in her small rented room, wondering whether she should simply go back to her village, when a messenger arrived with an envelope. It was an invitation! To the Prince’s Ball! Her heart raced with excitement. Looking closely at the invitation, she was shocked to see that it was for that very night! She quickly washed herself. Then she pulled out the ball gown she had sewn so long ago. It looked just as beautiful and elegant as the day she made it. She put it on, combed and braided her hair, put on makeup, and made herself beautiful in every way she could. Then she set out for the palace.
By the time she arrived, the Ball had already started. She went in, and her eyes were assaulted by the amazing spectacle. The ballroom had a huge arched ceiling support by smooth marble columns. The ceiling itself was painted with beautiful art. The ballroom was crowded with guests, some talking, some eating, some dancing to the music being made by an orchestra. All were dressed in stylish and expensive clothing of such amazing colors and fabrics that her own gown now seemed like a simple peasant dress. In fact, many of the guests snickered as she walked by, and she heard sotto-voice comments, like “She wore that to the ball?” and “How did she get in here?”
She knew no one there. She was feeling a bit lonely in the huge crowd. Then she spotted a familiar face. The guard from the palace gate. Although she was not particularly fond of the man, she decided to go over and talk to him.
“I see you have made it, at last, to the Prince’s Ball,” he said peevishly. “I hope you find it enjoyable.”
“Is the prince here?” She asked.
“No, he has not arrived,” he replied in a bored tone.
“When will he get here?” She asked him.
“I do not know. Perhaps he will not come at all. The Prince follows his own calendar.” With that the guard walked off to chat with some other guests.
Large tables were laid out covered in steaming dishes of food. Since she had not eaten, she moved in their direction. However, when she arrived, she discovered that the food all smelt rather revoltingly of yew. She noticed servants moving among the crowd, offering the guests hors devours from gleaming silver platters. But after stopping a few of them to ask for a bite, she discovered that these too smelt of yew. So she ate nothing.
Suddenly, the music stopped, a hush settled over the crowd, and a loud voice boomed out, “Lords and Ladies, honored guests, please welcome the gracious and royal host of this evening’s fabulous gala, Prince Wine Stain!”
Two large oak doors slowly swung open, and the guests cheered as they rushed over toward the place where the prince was entering the ballroom. In their haste and excitement, many guests jostled and elbowed the oldest sister. She found herself near the rear of the throng, unable to see the prince. She moved from side to side, looking for a gap in the heads and shoulders so she could see his grand eminence. Finally, she found a place where the onlookers were neither too tall nor too closely packed. Here, she caught a brief glimpse as he passed.
He was not at all what she expected. He seemed to be quite old for a prince, with much gray hair sprinkled in with his stiff, wiry, black hair. He was also quite fat. His clothing was stylish and looked as if it cost a fortune. Yet it hung loose and limp over his figure as if a tentmaker had tailored it. His eyes were small and close-set, like a weasel’s, and he had a large, lumpy nose. His cheeks were covered with rough, patchy bristles, as if he had forgotten to shave.
But still, the guests thronged around about him, cheering, calling out, or simply reaching out to touch his clothing. The prince mostly ignored them, only occasionally waving, or pausing a moment now and then to shake a man’s hand or hug a woman as he passed. A very few were favored with a brief exchange of a few words.
The knot of admirers moved with the prince until he reached a large table surrounded with velvet ropes. The revelers gathered outside the ropes, while the prince sat down at the table, which was laid out with various foods and jugs of drink, and began to eat.
As the music started up again, her heart fell as she thought about her long journey, all the troubles and adventures she had, and realizing that she might not want to dance with the prince after all.
But the air of the ballroom was filled with the sweet and eloquent music of the orchestra. It soothed her worries and lifted her spirits. She decided that she had come to dance, so dance she would. She went to the dance floor, closed her eyes, emptied her mind, and let the rhythmic sounds fill her. Then she began to dance a simple, traditional dance that everyone in the kingdom would know.
At first she was ignored by the other dancers. A few of the guests pointed and laughed at the simple girl in the plain dress out on the dance floor. But she paid them no heed. Soon the dancers closest to her, seeing her beautiful and graceful movements, were looking over their partner’s shoulders, or turning toward her, watching her, admiring her. But she did not notice. Her eyes were closed, her body and mind sensing only the music and her motion. Soon, unseen through her closed eyes, a small crowd of fascinated onlookers gathered in a ring around her. The song came to an end. The music stopped. She opened her eyes. She was suddenly afraid, with so many eyes, quietly watching her. She wondered if she had done something terribly wrong, and was on the verge of rushing from the ballroom. Then the crowd began to clap. Slowly at first, then louder, with some cheering and whistling. She blushed crimson from the roots of her hair down to the neckline of her dress.
Then the orchestra launched into another song. Taken with the enthusiasm of the moment, she jumped into one of the new dances that she and her sisters had invented along the road. Some of the crowd cheered, while others whispered, “What dance is that?”, and others just stood staring, mouths agape. The throng around her grew, until nearly everyone at the ball was gathered round to watch her. Even those that had lingered by the ropes around the Prince’s table began to wander over to discover what spectacle drew everyone’s attention. When the music stopped, a great cheer erupted from the throats of the onlookers. Suddenly a stir began in the crowd. The people gathered around her parted, and the prince himself came through the opening.
“Your dancing,” he said in a squeaky voice. “It’s nice. Let’s dance.”
The crowd cheered again, and the orchestra struck up a new tune. The oldest sister was exuberant. Here she was, as she had always dreamed, at the ball, dancing with the Prince! The Prince took her in his arms, and they began to dance.
She was feeling a little light-headed from the excitement and exertion of dancing. And her stomach growled, reminding her of her missed supper. Still, she was dancing with the prince, and went enthusiastically into the first steps of the dance.
The prince, however, was not a particularly good dancer. His fat body moved only slowly, and was always behind the beat. His movements were jerky, and not graceful at all. And he reeked most foully of the terrible stench of yew.
Then, during one of his clumsier steps, his big, heavy boot came down painfully on the oldest sister’s foot. She yelped in pain, and stopped dancing.
“You will not dance with me?” The Prince demanded. She tried to dance again, but her foot was too sore.
“Very well then,” the prince declared haughtily, and turned and stomped back to his table. The other guests were aghast. The oldest sister slowly limped off the dance floor, and sat down on a chair. She rubbed her sore foot.
In a few moments, her foot felt sufficiently recovered that she ventured out onto the dance floor again. She danced just as gracefully as before, but the other guests simply ignored her. And though some stole admiring glances at her, they quickly looked away.
After a while, the oldest sister grew tired, and left the dance floor. She found herself next to the palace guard.
“Most unfortunate for you,” he commented.
“Indeed, I fear I have displeased the Prince,” she replied. “Perhaps he will have forgotten by the next ball.”
“That may be,” he observed. “But it will be of no use to you. Now that the Prince disfavors you, it is not likely that you will get invited to the ball again.”
“But surely, I must be invited to come back. The guests admired my dancing, every one of them.”
“This is true,” the guard admitted. “But they fear the power of the Prince, and will shun you nonetheless. It takes much more than talent to get an invitation. A bit of luck helps. In your case, I would say you were lucky to get invited at all.”
The oldest sister pouted at this. “But I have talent!”
“The Hollow Wood is full of talented dancers. Talent goes begging here. Why would one be invited to the Ball on talent alone? The Prince can demand a much higher price. Nearly all of the guests are here tonight because they know someone of importance. Or at least, they know someone who knows someone. The rest bought their way here, with either money or by pounding the meat of the yew.”
The eldest sister was sad. “Then I will never come to the ball again?”
“Who knows?” speculated the guard. “It is said that each person’s hat will be ruined by an incontinent bird overhead only once in a lifetime. Still, I have known men to have two, even three hats ruined so. Maybe the bird of luck will pass over you again.” He paused a moment, then added, “Of course, if you were to pound the meat—“
“No,” she broke in. “That, I will not do.”
They were silent for a moment. Then the eldest sister asked, “If I were to wait for another bird, what should I do in the meantime?”
“Well,” suggested the guard, “you could go back to being a bar-easter.”
“Is there nothing else?” she asked.
“Some,” he said, “work for the barbers of the Hollow Wood.”
“I could be a barber,” the eldest sister mused.
“No, no,” he chided, “not as barbers. You see, the Prince has decreed that all haircuts must be charged by the amount of hair cut off. So each barber needs a maid to measure the weight of the tresses snipped from each customer. These are known as the weigh-tresses.”
“That sounds just as dull as being a bar-easter,” she remarked, smiling a little.
“And,” he added, “there are those who take tend to all of the care and maintenance of the bar, after it has been pushed east all day.”
“Let me guess.” she said with a chuckle, “These are known as the bar-tenders.”
“Just so,” the guard said with a laugh.
“There is one other occupation, but I doubt you would be suited for it,” the guard remarked. “Since you have such a dislike of the yew.”
“What is that?” the oldest sister asked curiously.
“Well,” explained the guard, “there is a drink popular in the Hollow Wood made from the juices extracted from the pounding of the yew. It is known as the star drink. Those who serve this drink, are known as the pouring-stars.”
“Ugh,” she grunted, “that sounds dreadful.”
“Indeed,” the guard agreed.
“I suppose I shall leave the Hollow Wood then,” said the eldest sister, despondent.
“Ah, now there is something seldom heard in the Hollow Wood,” the guard said with amazement.
“What is that?” asked the oldest sister.
“I am not quite sure, since it is so unfamiliar,” said the guard. “But it might be wisdom.”
The next morning, the oldest sister packed up her belongings, put on her travelling boots and cloak, and left the Hollow Wood. Her ball gown, she left behind.
The disappointment of the Ball, and especially the Prince, after all her wasted hard work and fruitless determination, left her tired and drained. “Perhaps I shall never dance again,” she said forlornly. She walked slowly down the road toward home.
As night was falling, she was passing through a village, where she heard music and many voices. She walked to the village square, where the villagers were dancing. She felt like she should keep walking, but the beautiful sounds and happy faces held her to the spot, remembering the happy days of dancing in her own village so far away. Gradually, her body began to move in rhythm to the sounds, slowly and subtly at first, then with a swaying that grew and spread through her whole self. Soon, she was dancing along with the rest of the villagers, letting the music carry her to a warm, comfortable state. The villagers looked about, still dancing, but turning their heads to get a better look at this stranger who moved with the grace of a floating swan. They began whispering among themselves, “Who is that?” and “Where did she learn to dance so beautifully?” When the dance ended, many of the villagers came over to introduce themselves, and to ask her about her dancing, and her travels. One particularly friendly family invited her to share their supper and stay with them for the night. She accepted thankfully, and spent a happy evening contentedly chatting with them.
The next morning, as she was leaving their house, a wagon was pulling up to the front door. It was the brother of the owner of the house. The family came out to greet him, introducing her, and praising her dancing with such enthusiasm that she blushed.
“Well,” said the brother, “We are having a dance in the village where I live tonight. Our villagers would truly delight in the performance of such an accomplished dancer. I would be honored if you would come back with me to celebrate with our town.”
“Well,” the oldest sister said thoughtfully, “I have a very long way to go, and should get back on the road home. Besides, I have grown rather indifferent to dancing.”
“The village is further down the road, and if you would agree, I will take you in my wagon. By walking, you could get no further than my village today in any case. Thus, you will not be delayed. I must admit, however, that my village is somewhat off your direct course back home. We must turn at a crossroads, and travel a short way up it. Tomorrow morning, I will take you back to the crossroads, and you will be as close to your home as if you had walked all day.”
The oldest sister considered this for a moment, then agreed.
That night at the village dance was very much the same as the previous, with the villagers admiring her graceful motions. She even taught a few of the girls of the village some of the new dances she had learned in the Hollow Wood, and a few of the dances of her own invention.
And while she danced, she looked at the happiness of the villagers, and felt the dying embers of her love for dance stoked to a warm, contended glow, and she danced with joy once again.
The next day, she was invited to dance at another village, a little further up the road, and she happily agreed. Which led to an invitation to the next village, and the next. And so she began to go from village to village, dancing, and teaching new dances, and talking of her travels. She danced in many villages and even towns throughout the kingdom, and even a few in some nearby kingdoms. And although she was not rich, for she usually received only a hot meal and a warm bed for her efforts, she was content.
She learned on her travels that those whose words came too quickly, or were very good at convincing another man, were not to be trusted. And those that were angry, excitable, ambitious, or gloomy, were to be avoided, as they were invariably dangerous, or devious, or dull. But those who lived contended lives and took comfort in the company of family and friends, these she trusted. And she spent many happy evenings talking with these into the late hours over simple, home-cooked food and a warm fire.
In this way, she spent many years on her long adventure. She would never speak of the Hollow Wood herself. Yet often, the girls of the town would ask her to appraise their dancing, and tell her of their dreams to visit the Hollow Wood, and dance with the Prince. At first she would warn them sternly that the Hollow Wood was no place for a young girl or boy. But she found to her dismay that those were the ones most likely to defy her advice, and place their feet onto that dangerous path. In time, she learned to reply more cautiously, so that they would more easily swallow the bitter truth. “Your dancing is wondrous, and joyful to behold. It is a gift to all who see it. It would be better for you to share it with the people of this village, whom you love, and who love you in return. In the Hollow Wood, you can only share it with strangers, who will love only your dancing, and care not a whit for you. And they will want so much more from you than dancing. More than a wise woman is willing to give.”
If they seemed particularly keen on going to the Hollow Wood, and could not be discouraged, she would warn them, “The journey to the Hollow Wood is long and filled with tricksters and charlatans. Many who set out find themselves in strange places indeed.”
One day, as she danced along the road, she saw a poor beggar woman. She was old, her clothes torn, her body hunched over, her face filthy and wrinkled with age and a long life of hardship and misfortune.
“Spare a coin for a poor, unlucky one,” the old woman begged, holding out a battered tin cup.
“I’ll give you only an honest day’s wages for and honest day’s work, and not a shilling less nor a shekel more,” the eldest sister replied. “But you have my sympathy. If you can work, perhaps a merchant or farmer will reward you with coin.”
“A pox on your sympathy, and a curse on your dancing,” growled the beggar woman.
“Dancing is a merry pursuit,” said the oldest sister. “Perhaps if you tried, you would learn the joy of it. But why do you beg?” She asked. “Why do you not work for your wages?”
The beggar woman scowled. “I have spent many years pounding the cruel yew. But now I am too blasted old. Besides, ‘twas that accursed dancing brought me to this pitiful state. I want only a sorry cup of the bitter tea that burns my cracked throat, to ease my groaning sorrow.”
As she spoke these words, the oldest sister peered through the grime and creases on her face, and a startling feeling of recognition dawned upon her.
“It could not be,” she whispered. “You look so familiar to me.”
The oldest sister peered closer, then exclaimed, “Are you my sister, lost so long ago?”
“No!” shouted the beggar woman. “I have no sisters! My sisters abandoned me to my lonely fate so horribly many years ago. I have no loveless family now. No one cares for me, for I am stained too deeply with the cruel yew, and it cannot wash off.”
“But you seem so like my sister!” the oldest sister declared. She moved closer to give her a hug, but the smell of the yew was so strong upon her wretched frame, bringing back the terrible memories of the Hollow Wood, that she couldn’t help herself. She stopped two steps from her, and could move no closer.
The old woman snickered, “Tis a filthy truth, I cannot be loved. I will take my rude self elsewhere. The cold people of this cruel land have no godforsaken charity.” With that she began to shamble down the road.
“Wait!” cried the oldest sister. But just then, another woman came by her on the road, with a group of noisy children straggling along behind her, making a boisterous commotion, as happy children often do. She spun around, and was shocked once again. For leading the children was the middle sister.
“Sister!” She called out.
“What a joy!” sang out the middle sister, and the two rushed to each other and embraced. “It has been so long! And I have missed you so dearly!”
“And I, you,” replied the oldest sister.
“And who are these?” asked the oldest sister.
“Why, these are my children,” said the middle sister proudly. “We have come back home to visit with our parents, and brothers, and their children.”
“Our home?” asked the oldest sister, puzzled.
“Yes,” replied the middle sister, “we are but a short walk from Flover Village.”
“What a happy thing you tell me,” said the oldest sister. “It will give me great joy to see my family again. But wondrous fate has brought us all together, for our youngest sister is here too!” said the oldest sister.
But when they turned to look down the road where the old beggar woman had gone, she was not there. And though they searched up and down the road, and through the wood, they found no trace of her pitiable self.
The two reunited sisters walked down the road to Flover Village, and spent a wonderful day in the warm embrace of their family. Their parents, brothers, sisters, and many nieces and nephews were there, and the oldest sister told many tales of her travel and adventures.
The next day, they oldest sister packed her things, intending to set off for the next village. As she went to say her goodbyes, her family hugged her close. With tears in their eyes, they begged her not to go. She looked at the road she had known for so many years with longing, and regret. Then she turned back. She saw the love in the eyes of her parents, brothers, sister, and their children. And she was content.