Thursday, 9 July 2009
Many years ago, in a lovely old house at the edge of our town, somebody moved in. None of the neighbours knew who had taken the house, only that they had a cat with large green eyes. It was said among the children that the cat was proof of the owner being a witch. Nobody took that too seriously, everyone knows about children and their vivid imaginations.
Now it happened that in the same town, there was a woman with three daughters. She had taught them all that she could and school had given them a go until they were ready to go out into the world and seek their fortunes. Reading in the local paper that an old woman wished for a housekeeper, the eldest daughter applied for the job. She was hired, being of good character and to her surprise was told to show up at the lovely old house at the edge of town. The following Monday, she took the bus to the edge of town and knocked at the solid wooden door. A metal panel was drawn back and behind the grille the eldest daughter was looked at by a very large eye. A sharp voice asked her,
The eldest daughter said that she was the new housekeeper and gave her name. The panel shut and the door opened to reveal an empty hallway. Whoever had been looking at her was not there. She entered carefully and called out, when to her surprise a very small old woman, appeared and told her,
"You will work for me for a year. If you are a good worker, that year will be more than enough to keep you for the rest of your life. If not, well, you'll see young lady."
The eldest daughter assured the old woman that she would work hard. The old woman led her through the lovely old house to a large room. Inside it was a wooden chair, a basket and a heap of peas and beans that filled half the room.
"I have to go out and shall no doubt be away all day. When I return, I shall expect all the peas to be sorted out from the beans. Some of the beans have a white stripe along them. You are to make sure that you pick those out and I shall take them from you when I return," the old woman told her.
The eldest daughter stood in shocked silence and the old woman shoved her into the room, shut and locked the door. The eldest daughter sat and sobbed in despair, then rolled up her sleeves and with a big sigh, began to sort the peas from the beans. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, the old woman's cat was there, sitting by the door as if he had been there all the time. His eyes were like two green moons and his fur was blacker than the blackest night.
"What are you staring at, you moon-eyed cat?" the eldest daughter snapped sadly.
The cat meowed softly but the eldest daughter ignored him and continued to sort the peas and beans. Again the cat meowed softly and the eldest daughter told him that he was good for nothing and she wished he would go away. The cat arched his back, his eyes flashed and his whiskers twitched crossly. Suddenly he vanished and the eldest daughter began to weep as she sorted the peas and beans. When the day was over, the old woman returned and found that the eldest daughter was still sorting out the peas from the beans.
"What is this? You have not finished? You good for nothing slattern! You are no use to me!" the old woman told her and instantly the eldest daughter was turned into a bean with a faint white stripe along it's side.
The beans and peas suddenly gathered themselves together and became a heap that took up half the room. The old woman growled and left the room.
The next day the second daughter saw the advert for a housekeeper and having phoned and been accepted, she turned up at the same house in the morning. She too knocked at the door and as had happened before, the panel opened and a large eye peered at her through the grille. A sharp voice asked her,
The second daughter told her business and the door opened. As before, the old woman showed her the peas and beans and told her to sort them out and look for the beans with the white stripes on them. The second daughter could barely protest when the old woman shoved her into the room and shut and locked the door behind her.
The second daughter was made of sterner stuff than her eldest sister. She rolled up her sleeves and set to work. Yet, it seemed that the faster she sorted, the heap did not get smaller. Suddenly as if he had been there all the time she noticed the cat sitting with his tail curled neatly around his forepaws. He stared at her with his large green eyes and she winked at him cheerfully.
"My dear puss, I would help you if I could, but I have to finish this task first," the second daughter told him.
The cat meowed softly and the second daughter took off her shawl and spread it over her skirt's edge so that he might sleep there. The cat looked at her curiously for a moment, then seemed to sigh and disappeared. The second daughter shrugged her shoulders and sighed. She would have liked the company while she worked. Yet now she noticed that the heap did not seem to stay the same. It did not matter. When the old woman returned, she seemed visibly puzzled that the heap had diminished a little. Still, she snapped at the second daughter with glee and turned her into a bean with a white stripe also. The heap returned to its former size and the old woman laughed as she left the room.
Now the youngest daughter was sensitive like her oldest sister, but practical as her second sister. However, she was also capable and kind and willing to be kind to all. She too showed up at the old woman's house and all that befell her sisters happened to her but this.
When the panel opened and the large eye appeared, the youngest daughter curtsied and said,
"Hello. I have come to be the new housekeeper and what a lovely eye you have, so green like an emerald."
The eye blinked, the panel shut and the door opened to reveal a tall elegant footman in black with an elegant moustache and another large green eye to match the one that had peered at her through the grille. The youngest daughter smiled sweetly and asked where she might start.
The old woman appeared and dismissed the footman who bowed silently and stepped outside the door much to the youngest daughter's surprise. As before, she was led to the room and asked to sort the peas and beans. She curtsied and said she would do all that she might and asked if the old lady whom she called 'grandmother' would like her to cook supper for her also. The old woman chuckled and said that if she had finished sorting the peas and beans, she might cook supper for both of them and feed the cat. The youngest daughter curtsied and said she would.
She stepped into the room then, put down her bag and shawl and sat to sort the peas and beans. She did not complain. Like her second sister she rolled up her sleeves and started to work. Suddenly she was aware of the cat sitting there. Always willing to make a new friend, the youngest daughter finished sorting the peas and beans in her hand and turned to the cat.
"Hallo and what might I do for you, dearly beloved?" she asked.
The cat meowed and the youngest daughter got up from the wooden chair. She picked up the cat, sat down again with him on her lap and caressed his fur until he purred. After a while the cat settled and purred. To the youngest daughter's surprise, with every purr, the beans and the peas sorted themselves into three heaps. One heap was peas, green and dried. The second heap was black beans and the third small heap was made up of black beans with white stripes. You could count to ten and the peas and beans were all sorted. The youngest daughter laughed softly with delight and stroked the cat, who curled up and slept. Very softly so as not to wake him, the youngest daughter began to sing. Her song was quiet, sweet and each note seemed to linger in the room. After a little while she too slept, but she awoke when she heard a soft voice call her name three times.
The cat was gone and the door was wide open. The youngest daughter roused herself and took up the peas and black beans. She leaned over to pick up the black beans with white stripes and they seemed to wriggle in her hands. Surprised, she put them down and left them in her shawl. With the rest of the beans and the peas she went through to the large kitchen. The cat sat by a large dish and licked his lips when she entered. Being a soft-hearted girl, the youngest daughter decided to feed him first.
She opened the larder and found a stag's carcass. Before she could look elsewhere, the cat had darted into the larder and taken the stag in his mouth and placed it in his dish. When the youngest daughter turned to admonish him, the stag was nothing but bones and the cat sat washing his paws and ears. She stood with her hands on her hips and tried to tell him off, but she could not for he looked so beautiful.
"My dear, what will grandmother say?" the youngest daughter asked him.
"You have been the kindest of all so I will help you. Take the stag bones and grind them up. Boil water in the pot and put the ground stag bones in with the peas and black beans. Then take only the stock from the pot and bring the other beans with the black stripes into the kitchen. Pour the stock over those beans and I shall do the rest," the cat told her.
The youngest daughter was astonished, she did not believe that she had the strength to grind the stag bones. But she took the old woman's pestle and mortar and ground the stag bones into powder. With this powder she put the black beans and the green peas into a large pot with a large amount of water. She put pepper and salt and some herbs into the pot also and boiled the lot. She brought the black beans with white stripes into the kitchen and poured the stock over them. The cat meowed over them and dipped his tail into the mix three times before drawing a sign upon the stone flags of the kitchen floor. Suddenly the beans began to crack and sprout. They turned back into a host of young women who stood weeping. But the cat walked with a swagger and said to them all,
"Stop all your tears, it's not poison."
Then with a word he sent them home in a flash of fire. The youngest daughter was then instructed to place poppy seeds into the beans and peas and a large ham hock which was almost as big as she was. This done, she sat by the fire and the cat curled up on her lap and slept. When the old woman returned to find her supper ready she harrumphed and sat at the table.
"My supper, young lady," she demanded.
The youngest daughter served the old woman the meal and she ate it all up. With a yell the floor cracked open and swallowed up the old woman. The youngest daughter sat then and wept for she had not wished any harm to the old woman. But the cat stretched and grew until his fur split open and fell away from him to reveal a very handsome and elegant gentleman.
"My dear do not weep. You have your sisters back and the Faery Bay Laurel is gone to the King of the Deep Earth. For you, there are all the treasures she has gathered in this very house. For my part, I require only a crown, a sceptre, an airline ticket and my passport from her hoard. For I am a prince bewitched by Bay Laurel and must return to my kingdom to marry my truest love. You will find the deeds to this lovely house in the large oaken bureau in the office next the stairs," the handsome gentleman said.
He showed her the faery's wealth and took from it those things that were his, leaving her the rest. The youngest daughter called a taxi for him and kissed him farewell. He thanked her for her help and she thanked him for his.
The youngest daughter then phoned her mother's house and on the faery's wealth the four women lived happily to the end of their days.