There was a road on which three brothers lived. The youngest of these brothers was a farmer, and one evening as he worked in the fields he saw an old lady walking past. He called to her and said, “My friend, it is a long road ahead, and almost dark. Why not join me for dinner and stay here the night, and continue on your way upon the morn?”
The old lady said, “I am but old and poor, with nothing save the hair upon my head, the clothes upon my back, and the hands I have with which to work.”
To which the man replied, “I expect no payment in return, nor do I wish to place an obligation upon you that you cannot fulfil. I offer my hospitality as a gift, for we are all travellers together in this world, upon a journey we know not where will end.”
“Then I will join you,” said she. “And thank ye kindly.” And they went together to the farmer’s cottage.
There the farmer, though it meant he would go hungry in the days to come, cooked for the lady a fine meal, and while they ate they talked of many things. Later, though it meant he would sleep that night upon the cold stone floor of the hearth, the farmer prepared for her a fine bed, with quilts of fur and blankets of homespun wool to keep her warm. And finally, though it meant by the next morning he would have no more, he piled the last of his wood on the fire and kept it burning until the darkness waned and the sun rose up and brought with it the warmth of the new day.
As she came to leave, the old lady said to the farmer, “You have been greatly kind to me. Although I would not wish to insult you by attempting to pay for that which was freely given, I hope you can accept a small gift from me in return.” And she reached up and took the hair from her head and placed it in the farmer’s hands, and as he held it he saw it was not hair but finely spun yarn of purest gold.
She left him then and went on her way. The road was long, as the farmer had said, and she met no-one on it for the rest of the day. As dusk was falling, she happened upon a large house by the side of the road. The second brother, a merchant, lived there, and on seeing the old lady passing by he came out and said, “My lady, it is a long road ahead, and almost dark. Why not stay here the night, and in the morn continue upon your way?”
The old lady said, “I am but old and poor, with nothing save the clothes on my back, and the hands I have with which to work.”
The merchant looked at her clothes, and saw they were made not from cotton, but from finely spun yarn of purest gold. And so he said, “Then I will have your clothes, for I should be able to sell them for a high price.”
“Then I will join you,” said she. And they went together into the merchant’s house.
The merchant gave her some bread, which was stale and old, and left her at the table to eat by herself. When she had finished he showed her to the cellar and, pointing to the cold stone floor, said, “Here is your bed.” And then he took her clothes in payment, and went back up the stairs and locked the door behind him.
The next morning at the break of dawn he unlocked the door and woke her up and threw her out on to the road. “You tricked me, you witch!” he shouted. “Last night these clothes were made of purest gold. Yet now they are nothing more than old rags.”
“It was your greed that tricked you, not I,” she said, and turned to the road and continued naked on her way.
The road now was longer than ever, and she met no-one on it for the rest of the day nor into the night. Eventually she fell down in exhaustion by the side of the road and lay there asleep until dawn.
The third brother, a king, saw her there and said, “How dare you sleep upon my road. Pay me what is rightfully mine or I will place you in chains and not let you go.”
The old lady said, “I am but old and poor, with nothing save the hands I have with which to work.”
“Then your hands it will be,” said the king. And with a desperate laugh the old lady reached up and throttled him dead.
1. Written on July 18th, 2014
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