A farmer and his wife had a daughter, and they both loved her with all of their heart. They called her Red Rose, and they lavished her with love. Two years later they had another daughter, but this time the farmer’s wife died giving birth to her. The farmer called this daughter Black Death, and cursed her with his every breath.
The two sisters grew up reflecting the uneven treatment they received from their father. Red Rose, who was given nothing but praise, was fair of face, with long red hair and a confident and friendly nature. Black Death, however, was scolded and beaten daily and treated with naught but contempt and malevolence, and she grew up to be awkward and fearful and shy, with lank black hair and a sickly pallor to her skin.
One day, just after Black Death had turned 16, the farmer travelled to the city on business, and he took with him the farm’s full compliment of cows to sell at the market. He considered his daughters finally old enough to safely leave on their own, and anyway he was glad to be away from Black Death for a while. She still raised in him a furious hatred and despair that he could not control and which had not dimmed over the years but had instead grown stronger with every passing day.
Without the constant attacks from her father, Black Death, who called herself Raven, gradually became less withdrawn. Red Rose, who was usually forbidden by her father from helping her sister, shared with Raven the daily chores around the house and her work in the fields. Raven, who was forbidden by her father from playing with her sister, joined Red Rose in her games in the garden, and in the evening they swam together in the river that ran near their house.
By the end of the fifth day, Raven had begun to laugh and smile, and she said to her sister, “I wish this week could last forever. It has been to me as if a dream. But alas by Sunday our father will be home, and he shall wake us the next morning and all this shall be gone. It will be as if nothing has changed nor ever did. A dream fading away like all the others come the break of day.”
Rose, who loved her sister, said, “Let us run away together, far away, and never mention our father again.”
But Raven said, “He would never let us go. You due to love, and me due to hate. And when he came eventually to find us he would forgive you, and blame everything on me, and my punishment would be even more severe than that under which I suffer now.” And so they did not go.
On Sunday, the sisters were working in the fields when they heard a screaming by the river. They rushed there to discover a woman had been knocked into the water by her two cows, and was now being drowned beneath them as they clambered into the water to drink.
Raven, whose arms were strong from years of toil and could pull as strongly as an ox, grabbed the cords around the cows’ necks and hauled them up the river bank and back into the fields. Rose, who spent many of her days swimming in the river and was as agile as a fish, dived into the water and pulled the lady to safety.
“You have saved my life,” the woman said to the sisters. “Tell me anything you want, and I shall repay you as best I can.”
Red Rose said, “I have received nothing but kindness and riches my whole life, regardless of what I have deserved. Yet none have brought me happiness, for the only thing I want is for my sister to know joy, and be free of her life of torment.”
And Raven said, “My sister suggested we should run away together, for it is our father who torments me and has prevented me from ever knowing joy. But if we leave he will search us out until we are found, so he can punish me and reclaim my sister. For in love and in hate he considers us his own.
“But this week our father has been away, and today it is that he returns. So all I ask is that you come with us to meet our father, and tell him the kindness we have done you, in the hope that it will help convince him to let us leave. Then your debt to us will be repaid.
“For if he does agree to let us go and to leave us be, for as long as we live, both me and my sister can know true joy.”
And the woman said, “It will be done,” and she went with them to the road through the woods, and there they waited for the farmer’s return. When the old woman saw him approaching, she told the sisters to hide in the undergrowth with the two cows, and to remain quiet until all had been agreed.
“I will give him a chance to show his kindness,” she said to herself, and then to him she said, “Sir, your daughters saved me this afternoon from drowning, and I owe to them my life. In repayment for their deeds I wish to take them with me to my castle, where they can live like queens, for I will treat them with a kindness and generosity unknown in this part of the world. They shall want for nothing, and be happier than any who have come before or since.”
“No,” said the farmer. “I will not let you take them from me. They are my daughters and mine alone to keep.”
The woman said, “If their happiness is not enough, I offer you all my money and the great vast expanse of my lands, for I rule a great world. You shall be a king there without equal, and your daughters and I can stay here and toil as farmers upon the land.”
“My older daughter, whom I love, is all I have left to remind me of my wife, and as such is more precious to me than even the greatest treasure. Every time I look upon her face I see the beauty of her mother, and briefly I am happy again. No money nor power in the world would be enough to let me give her up,” said the farmer. “As for my other daughter, whom I detest, glad would I to be rid of her. But what she took from me can never be returned. To honour the memory of my wife, whose life she stole, her punishment must go on. And not for anything can I set justice aside and let her go free.”
“Then I shall return to you your daughters,” she said. “And you can go on your way.”
The old woman brought forth from the undergrowth her two cows. “Here is Red Rose,” she said, pointing to the cow with red-brown fur. “Here is Black Death,” said she, pointing to a cow of black and white. “Take them with you, and forever be gone from my sight.”
At this she rose up, and took on the appearance of a great witch, and in horror the farmer took the cows, believing them to be his daughters transformed by a great and terrible power, and he hurried away with them to his home and did not look back. Then the old woman took Red Rose and Raven to her realm, which was as vast as she had said, and vaster still, and there she treated them as if they were her daughters, and as if they were her friends.
“Oh Red Rose, look at what has been done to you,” said the farmer when he got home, and sadly stroked the red cow’s back. “Oh Black Death, look what you have done to her,” he said, and struck the black and white cow harshly with his hand.
The cows, although docile in temperament, were old and strong, and also stubborn and immovable, and they remained unmoved by both his kindness and his spite. In this way he lived out his days, his love and his hate stripped of power, and eventually he died. And on that morning the cows walked out beyond his fields and disappeared into the mists at the river’s edge.
As for the sisters, it is said they were never parted for as long as they lived, and nor were they ever unhappy again, in this or any other of their lives.
1. The first draft of this was written between June and November 2012, but this version is from May 2015
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