The Storyteller Presents
Hans My Hedgehog
Men and women meet and marry and love, and from their joy children come. Kisses catch, hearts embrace, and all is happy: pearl after pearl until a necklace of happiness. Or so it can happen, so it is told in stories. Buy sometimes love can fill a house and still the house remains empty. The tears and laughter of children, the music of family-there is none of this. Silence casts a shadow on these childless couples and there are things they will not speak of, hopes that well up, then are choked back, because there is a space and nothing may fill it. Such a couple, good people, farm folk, lived a long time ago, far from where I sit, and for all their crops grew, for all their fine harvests, sorrow was their only child.
Imagine a warm night, a cold night, a night like this one or any one. Outside the wind singing it lament, inside the farmer and his wife sleeping, snuggled up for warmth. But when the farmer reaches out for his wife, he finds a foot where her head should be, and the murmer sighing from her is at his socks and not his ear. "Ho!" he starts up and calls to her. "Ho!" but she's not budging. She's there for a reason. "Just for tonight," she tells him. "It's worked for others, it might work for us." "Chucklehead!" muttered her husband. "Don't be daft. You're not going to get a child. You've gone past it and that's that. If you want company, have a widow come up from the village. Now come up this end. I'm proper froze."
But the farmer's wife didn't want an old widow for company; she wanted a baby, a little thing of honey and softness, to wrap up in a bundle and sing to and snoodle with and hug to bits. She'd wanted this child for what seemed a lifetime until she couldn't bear to watch the lambing of the calves come or the eggs hatch, it hurt her so. She bought books of remedies, went to women at fairs, paid a furtune in charms, rocked out the long summer evenings and shivered the long winter nights, slept upside down in her bed, but still, still, still no baby came. In the stables, at the table, in the barn, she would harangue her husband with the hows and whats and whens of fertility.
They say if you stay three days in a smoke pit...
They say if you bathe first in mud and then in blood and then in milk of nettle...
They say if you kiss a thrush, eat a worm, swallow a frog...
They say the embrace of a stoat, the dung of a weasel, powdered tassel of bull, spider's dew...
Any of these will get us a son.
The farmer could not listen. Off he would stomp to the fields. No one wanted a son more than he did. His bones were stiff in the wind and he couldn't bend as he once could bend. He chopped and scythed and bundled and milked and walked and cropped, and all the while he hoped for a little boy to sit on his shoulders, to push the hat down over his eyes and chase the sheep and worry the hens from their laying. Oh yes, he yearned. But he never liked to speak of it. After, he felt bad.
Nothing, however, would deter his wife. Once night, she brought him a glass of brackish liquid. A wee tonic, she told him, to be drunk night and morning. His face darkened, wretched and frustrated, but she clung to him. "I want a child. I wouldn't care if it were a strange thing made of marzipan or porridge, if it were as ugly as a hedgehog. I want a baby to wrap in a bundle and sing to and snoodle with and hug to bits."
Now to say you wouldn't care when you want something is a dangerous thing. That woman wanted a bairn so bad she wouldn't care what she got. If she got a hedgehog, she'd bring its snout to her breast. Ears twitched that shouldn't have listened. Evan as she spoke, the room went chill with mischief and the trees slapped the windows, leaves flying off like words to those who shouldn't know know such vows....No sooner said than done, she got her wish. No time at all, she has her boy, little ball as ugly as sin with a pointed nose and sprouting hair everywhere, a hedgehog baby with quills as soft as feathers.
You could not imagine a more curious sight than the farmer's wife taking this baby to her breast, a bundle of ticklish sweetness, perfect smile in a sea of silky quills, the brightest bluest eyes like afternoons in Arabia when there isn't a single cloud. No mother ever loved her babe more than this woman. She wrapped him in a soft warm shawl and sang him old lullabies and snoodled him and hugged him to bits. And she gave her little darling a name. Hans, she called him. Hans my hedgehog.
But the farmer could not look at Hans my hedgehog. He didn't see they eyes like sky, he only saw folks giggle. He didn't feel the softness, he only felt the pitying stars on him. He didn't hear the lullabies, only the gibes, the speculations, the tittle-tattle of small minds with much to murmer of. No, he wouldn't go out, would not be seen with the child, rage and humiliation boiling in him. And the farmer grew to hate his son, the hedgehog boy. Out in the fields he chopped and scythed and bundled and milked, and all the while the shame of what had befallen him turned a knot in his heart-one moment the rage swelling, the next tears, huge tears splashing his boots.
So the hedgehog boy grew up, day following day, week chasing week, and his coat grew thicker and his eyes grew bluer and his nose more pointy and he was the sweetest son to his mother; of yes, he was a jewel at throat and wrist for her. Elsewhere the sneers and curses curled him up into a ball, the spite hurt his coat into spikes, the insults teased his quills into sharp protective needles. And if he came into a room, his father would leave it. If he crept up to touch his hand, his father would shudder. This was hans's life, a world of light and dark. The farm, his home, full of animals who loved him, his mother's snoodling. The world of folk who loathed him, his father's brooding. Village boys would creep up to the farmyard and taunt him with their village-boy taunts, their safety-in-numbers taunts, their anything-strange-is-ugly taunts, with their terrifying normalness, their ordinary apple-red faces, their shirt-out, slow-witted, thick-tongued taunts.
"Hey, beastie!" they would yell, smug as bugs. "Hey, hairy! Hey, critterchops! Hey, prickleback!" And Hans would curl up into his ball and shiver. Then they found a name that stuck, a name they scratched on walls, whispered when he could not see them, a name to haunt him. "Grovelhog!" they called him. "Grovelhog!" And Hans my hedgehog learned he was strange and he learned he was ugly and he learned to be sad and he learned the name that was given him. Grovelhog.
He retreated to the farmyard, to the animals. For every quill on his body, Hans had an animal for a friend, as many friends as he had quills. He had a special way with these creatures and they loved him. He could talk to them. If his mother was looking for him, she would always to first to the yard or the stables or the pens or the sties or to the place where the rooster strutted, a proud soldier of the hens. Hans tended to this bird, combed his comb, polished his beak, and fed and fattened him, and it wasn't long before the rooster was the biggest rooster you could imagine, a hugeness, a vast red rooster all plump and flush-feathered. Whenever the sadness came, whenever he caught his reflection in a pool, saw his strange boybeast face, Hans would run to these friends and be among them, for they found him neither odd nor strange but magnificent.
His father would come home from the fields and see the boy sitting amongst them, pigs nudging his cheeks, the cows caressing him, the dogs licking his hands, and he was disgusted. And if Hans spoke like a boy, he ate like an animal, snout dipped into the plate, lap-lap-lapping, slurp-slurp-slurping, unable to use a knife or fork. Until one day his father snatched the plate from his lips and cast it out into the yard, dragging his son by the ear, then driving him into the trough. "That's enough!" he cried. "Get out! Get out! From now on you'll eat outside with the other beasts!" And with that he returned to the kitchen and slammed the door shut on his son.
Darkness fell ans the house was quite silent. Hans had not returned. In one chair the wife sat, her face caught by the firelight, the tears glistening. In the other was the farmer, thick brows knitten, face set, saying nothing, but sighing often, head bowed to the floor. At length, he stood up, took a coat and a lamp, and walked out into the thick black owl-hoot night. "Hans!" he called, swinging the lamp through the fields. "Hans!" he cried, picking his way through the woods. But his son did not answer. He lay all night among the animal in the wet grass, under the sky's black velvet, and he thought and thought until he thought a hole in the ground. He did not answer his father's cries, did not return to his mother's tears, just lay there silently counting the stars.
His father wandered the dark hours, a great needle in his heart, one moment the rage welling up in him, the next tears, huge tears splashing his boots as he tramped and tramped and called and called. Until, come the morning, wretched, the farmer returned, damp through and weary. There by the step, asleep, was his son, the Govelhog, who had never once answered back or complained or ever been anything other than the best son a man could wish for. And the farmer wanted to pick up his boy in his arms and hug him and snoodle him and love him to bits. But he couldn't. He looked down at his pointy nose and his short arms and his quills and hair and he couldn't.
"I've trudged all night for you," he barked, kicking the sleeping child awake. "And now you'll not eat for a week off my food." Hans stood up, quills rippling up and down his back. "Father," he said in his flute voice, "I want you to do some things for me." The farmer was outraged. "You what?" he barked. "I want you to go to the village and have a saddle made for my rooster so I can ride him," Hans said. "And I want some sheep and some cattle and some pigs." Furious came the farmer's reply. "Oh, do you now! Fancy fine!" Hans nodded, undeterred. "I know which ones I'd like. And they would be happy to come with me."
"Come with you where?" demanded his father. "To where I go," replied his son. "Which is away. Which is to somewhere. Where I can't hurt no one and no one can hurt me." Tears and anger fought in the farmer. "You can't go nowhere. What'll your mum say who dotes on you?" Hans did not reply but rubbed the tears from his blue blue eyes. Finally, he looked up and curled his mouth into a brave smile. "Father, all night I lay outside to understand why you don't love me. I've thought and thought until I've thought a hole in the ground. And now it's all right. When I have the saddle, I'll go."
And the farmer felt ashamed. He went to the saddleman and brought home a saddle for the rooster and he herded up the animals his son had asked for and he told his wife to pack a packed lunch, and all the while the Grovelhog sat on the stoop and waited until all was ready. Then he went to his mother and she hugged him and snoodled him and loved him to bits, then to his father, who wanted so much to but couldn't, and said goodbye and, before the farmer could stop him, hugged him with all his might, and his father knew for the first time how soft he was, all honey and sweetness.
Then he was away, the Grovelhog, flinging on the saddle and riding off, the strangest steed, the strangest rider, the strangest army of hens and sheep and pigs and cattle. His parents watched him until he was a faint smudge in the distance, the farmer stroking the quill he'd shed in goodbying, while his mother felt a crack faulting her heart, like a tiny pencil line. And with each hour line grew thicker and thicker until one day, not long after, her heart split in half and she died.
Twenty years later, a King got lost in a great forest. It was the kind of forest where the trees point down and the paths point in, and all you can be certain of is that you don't know where you are. And once the King was lost he got more lost, until he was well on his way to losing his mind. You could tell this by looking at him us he tugged away at his ear, which is a sure sign of that complaint. Oh yes, he was well on the way when he heard a sound that was a bitter sound and a sweet sound all at once, a music that began like hello and ended like goodbye. So, tugging his ear the billy-o, the King followed that sound through glade and thicket until he came at length to a clearing where animals roamed-sheep, cows, pigs, and hens. Huge, these creatures, and content, looking for all the world like what animals on holiday must look like. And behind them was a palace. A most extraordinary sight, a fabulous affair of glass and jewels and waterfalls. The King approached the great doors and knocked.
The tall creature who greeted him was neither man nor beast, but somewhere in between. He had the body of a warrior, the eyes of a Prince, but his nose was stretched into a snout, and sweeping back from is eyesbrows to his calves bristled a battalion of gleaming spikes. He looked nothing less to the astonished King than half a man and half a hedgehog, which is precisely was he was.
The King sucked in his breath and introduced himself, telling of his plight and his pedigree, of his missing army and empty belly. The creature said nothing through all this, and the King, story told, looked nervously at the sharp spikes and waited...waited through a long threatening silence. Finally, in a voice of dark woodwind, the creature spoke. "You are welcome, sir, in my home," he said, and bowed before leading him into a magnificent hall, where huge fires leapt and sparkled. There, already laid for two, was a table groaning with food. Straightaway they sat down and ate of the greenest greens and the sweetest sweets and the juiciest juices. And after, with the embers glowing in the fires and the sun drawing in, Hans my hedgehog, for so it was, took up his bagpipes and began to play. What songs these were! Haunting and sinuous, threading through the evening air. Laments that were bitter and sweet all at once, that began in hello and ended in goodbye. And before he could think I'm full now and found, the King fell asleep.
How long the King slept, he did now know. Dreams came. Dreams in many colors that broke over him like waves, hugging his sleep, washing away his worries. He woke a new man, ready for anything, or so he felt, but my dears, what a sight greeted his bright eyes. For his pillow was transformed into a tree, his bed a mossy bank, and the view was not the creature's Great Hall, which was surely where he had fallen into sleep. No, ahead of him, sparkling in the sun's kiss, was his own palace! How he had come here, he knew not. All he knew was joy, joy in waterfalls, joy cascading over him. And he began to dance as only Kings once lost and then found can dance. A jig. A jiggle-joggle and a leap. Then bagpipes took up his rhythm in a merry reel and, looking round, the King saw the hero of his honor, Hans my hedgehog, astride his giant rooster.
"Anything!" cried the King. "Anything you wish for is yours, for you have saved and salvaged me, you have led me from the labyrinth." But Hans would have no reward. He was ready to ride off. "I insist," insisted the King. "Name anything, my dear friend." And a curious smile came to the creature's face, his blue eyes twinkling. "Very well," he said. "Then I ask for the first thing to greet you when you arrive in the palace, whatever that may be." The King thought on this request, imagining his first steps on reaching home. And he knew his first sight would be of faithful, flop-eared, worried-himself-sick-eared Wagger, the Royal dog. No mean gift, for this was a wonderful dog, long the King's boon companion. But the King agreed, nonetheless. His dog would have a merry life in the freedom of the forest, in a place where the animal was King. "It is yours," he told Hans. "The first thing to greet me." At this, Hans bowed in gratitude. "I'll collect my reward in a year and a day," he said, and without more ado turned the rooster and set off, a strut and a gallop into the distance.
The King watched him, hand held up in gratitude, then turned himself and hurried home, the delight of return engulfing him. Sure enough, he had no sooner set foot on the drawbridge then he heard a bark and a yelp of glee. Trumpets sounded a fanfare. The heavy doors of his palace swung open. And there before him, racing to embrace her long-lost father, was the Princess, his daughter.
He took her up in his arms, their tears blessing them as he swung her round and round and round. Then came Wagger, jumping up at them both, desperate for his master's attention. Bells sang out the King's return. Wonderful! they tolled. Hurrah! Harrah! Then, through his chorus of welcome, the King caught another sound on the breeze, a sound both bitter and sweet, beginning in hello and ending in goodbye. And looking up, still clutching his child, he scanned the horizon. There on the very edge of the hills, he caught the silhouette of his rescuer, pipes raised to the heavens. A chill panic gripped the King. He dropped his startled daughter and let out a sob of despair. It seemed to him as if a black cloud had fallen on him. For in his excitement, in his delight, he had forgotten his promise and now the weight of it crushed him. Not me dog, his heart cried bleakly. Not my dog, but my daughter. My daughter...
A lot can happen in a year. The King settled into the dance of days. The snow, when it came, covered everything. The sun stunned his inner being. Only the trees dried from green to russet and shed their summer dresses as the King lay awake through the nights, unable to sleep, listening as the leaves rustled, grazing the stone walls of the palace. Fear took him fretting along the battlements, his eyes squeezed to the distance, waiting, counting the days. And all the while suitors from far and wide pilgrimaged to his kingdom, seeking his daughter's hand. And all who saw her were beguiled. She was a Princess of Sweetness and Cherry Pie. The King's nightmare, of her delicate skin pierced and bleeding from the creature's terrible coat of quills, haunted him until he wished he had never been found, longed to be lost again in the forest. For he had spoken to no one of his rash promise. To no one.
Oh yes, a lot can happen in a year; sometimes the minutes drift, marooned, and a single afternoon can seem a lifetime. But when you dread the future, days can make you dizzy with their dash. So it was with the King. It was upon him, the fatal day, before he caught his breath. A year had whizzed like a firework fizzing into the air. The evening had found him slumped glum on his throng. And when the bells dully thumped out the hour at six, he was still there, gray and dejected. At the last chime he heard another sound, a sound both bitter and sweet, beginning in hello and ending in goodbye. And the King stood up and moved stiffly to the balcony to observe the arrival of a strange creature, half-man, half-hedgehog, riding on a giant rooster and leading an army of animals. The King sighed and walked slowly down the drawbridge to greet them.
"Do you remember me?" asked Hans my hedgehog, his voice half-pipe, half-drum. The King nodded. "A year and a day have passed since we last met," continued the creature, his coat of quillls alert and dangerous. "Will you keep your promise to me?" The King's face set in a grim mask. "I will," he said. "I will."
Should I tell you of the Princess's tears, their torrents, her sighs, her lament? Should I tell you of the pain, how it hurt the King to say what had been unsaid, explain what was inexplicable? Let it suffice that for an hour, two, after Hans came to the palace, father and daughter were alone in her chamber, and that he finally emerged, the King could not raise his eyes but stared, bleak, at the ground beneath him. He led Hans my hedgehog to the chamber, then went himself-sorrow his crown sadness his septer-to his wife, the Queen, to tell all, to console and be consoled.
Hans found the Princess sitting at the window of her chamber, hair streaming down, coiling through the open shutters, as if her soul were contained in the auburn tresses and sought to escape. He walked into the room and she jumped up. Jumped up before her betrothed. Her father had not exaggerated. She was promised to a monster. And yet, when the creature spoke, his voice was the voice she had always imagined her husband would possess, a voice of woodwind, of dark notes, a true voice.
"Do you know me, Princess?" the voice asked. "I do, sir," she replied. "You saved my father and he owes you his life." Hans nodded. "But do you know of his promise to me?" he demanded. "He promised you the first thing to greet him on his return," she said, looking at the blue blue eyes, the pointy nose, the carpet of quills. "I am yours, sir, to do with what you will." The quills bristled, the blue eyes sparked and flinted. "Then I claim you for my bride," he said. "I want you to come and live with me in the forest. I want you for my Princess of Sweetness and Cherry Pie. I want to catch you up and sing to you and snoodle you and hug you to bits. I want you to love me." A single tear crept down the Princess's sweet cheek. "Then so be it," she whispered. "Do you find me very ugly?" asked her husband-to-be. "Not so ugly as going back on a promise," she declared, and felt the tear slide from her face to the floor.
They were married the next day. A wedding without bells. A funeral of a wedding, the guests in mourning. No words passed between the couple save the "I do"s and the "I will"s. After, the banquet was presided over in silences puntuated only by the occasional sob-from the Queen, from the King, from the Princess. Even the music threated its way into the room as a grave and plangent rain. It followed the couple as they left the banquet hall and made their way to the bridal chamber, all eyes on them, a confetti of pity and outrage filling the room.
The fierce glow of the fire caught the highlights of the Princess's hair has she crept into bed. Red light danced around her face. She lay quietly in the lace and linen of the sheets. Her husband stood at the fireplace, staring into the flames, then picked up his pipes and began to play. The Princess closed her eyes and through the closed lids, saw her miserable future unfolding. Along the corridor in her parents' room, King and Queen lay listening to the pipes, breath held. Abruptly the music stopped. The Princess shivered. Next moment she forced her eyes open to see a grotesque paw, half-hand, half-claw, appoach her cheek. His touch was so gentle, so careful. He brushed his hand tracing the perfect shape of her features. She shuddered and he withdrew his hand as if it were burning. His sigh left her as he retreated to the grate and lay down. And so, the air fragile with emotions, the bridegroom and his bride settled down to sleep on their wedding night.
What woke the Princess she could not say. A rustle, perhaps. Or perhaps the terror of her dreams, but when she opened her eyes she was astonished. For there, barely illuminated by the fire's farewell, was her Lord, the hedgehog man, peeling off his coat of quills, splended man, the quill settling like a rug on the ground. She watched, dumbfounded, as the man slipped quietly from the room and disappeared. And lying there, half-Sweetness, half-Cherry Pie, the Princess could hardly credit what she'd seen and couldn't have, saw and shouldn't have. But, creeping to the window, she looked down and there, sure enough, was a man, all shadows, moving among his friends, the animals, in the night's quiet rain. And she found herself going to the abandoned coat of hair and quills and touching it, soft and warm and remarkable.
The first rays of morning woke her from dreams of waterfalls and ice cream and there she was in her bed, and by the ashes and dust in the grate lay her husband, back again, beast again. So had she dreamed this peeling off of skin? Surely she must have. But that night, the same scene: the creature standing over her as she pretended to sleep, the tender touch on her cheek, not prickly but so smooth she felt an ache when he left her, and then the magic of his transformation, the emergence of man beneath the skin. And she wanted so much for this fair youth, slender in the shadows cast by the fire, wanted so much for him to come to her. But no, he slipped away. Again she crept to the window to watch him as he moved among the animals, as they nudged and nuzzled and caressed him. Again she went to the coat of quills and lay down against it, and how comfortable she found it, how luxuriant! It made her drowsy, lying there by the fire; it made her eyelids heavy. She sighed, wrapping herself in her husband's skin, drifting off, drifting off. She knew she shouldn't, knew she mustn't, but really couldn't help herself, really couldn't stay awake another minute.
A shadow fell across her face and its dark touch woke her with a start. Standing in the doorway was her husband. "Sir," she cried nervously. "I woke and you had gone! And left behind you coat of quills." She could not see his features, his expression; he remained cloaked in darkness. "Which would you have as husband?" came his reply. "The man or the creature?" The Princess thought on this, swallowed, considered. "I have a husband," she said as length. "And he is what he is. No more. No less." She saw the stern shape relax, soften. "Then forgive him, madam, if he returns to his skin," said her husband as he stepped toward the quills and assumed them, restoring the beast's silhouette. "For I am enchanted," he continued, "and cannot leave it. But if you say nothing of this for one more night, then loyal love will break this spell forever." His blue eyes settled on her, yearning, imploring. Her heart reached out to him. "I promise," she whispered. "I promise."
But we all know about promises, don't we? And secrets. What use are they when no one knows about them? When they twist and turn and tickle out stomachs. When they are tickly little fish wriggling into our conversations. Now, you see, the Princess had a mother...and mothers have this way of catching secret-fish and promise-fish. They eye us with wise eyes and all our rivers are glass to them. They fish us. Just so with the Queen, who that morning at breakfast sees a daughter skip to the table, eat when for days no appetite, laugh when for days no laughter.
"Hungry?" she inquired, raising an eyebrow. "Very," replied her daughter, all Sweetness, all Cherry Pie. "Good," her mother said, smiling. "Sleep well?" The Princess ate heartily. "Yes, thank you." "Good," repeated her mother, eyebrow twitching, her voice casting its hook into the conversation. "Not troubled by the creature?" The Princess frowned. "No, mother," she said, defensive. "And please don't speak of him as a creature." Her mother looked at her carefully, the hook dangling. "Listen, daughter," she began. "Last night you father and I went to a wise woman and told her of you tragedy. She knows of these creatures, these Grovelhogs, and knows the remedy. He is enchanted, you see."
"I know," the Princess blurted out, the invisible hook snagged her lips. Her mother pulled sharply on the line. "Oh?" The Princess felt her face flush flustered. "I mean, I knew he must be," she cried wriggling away from the question. "Yes, I see," she pretended. "He's enchanted." The Queen reeled in, trumphant: "He's told you, hasn't he?" Her daughter denied it, all the while wriggling. "Does he take off his skin?" her mother demanded. "No!" she insisted. "No, he doesn't! He doesn't!" The Queen grasped her hand. "The only way to break the spell is to throw the skin into the fire. It he sleeps or leaves the room, cast the skin into the flames and he will be free of it." The Princess shook her head, confused, miserable. "That's not the way!" she cried, her betrayal exposed. The Queen settled back into her seat, the fish landed. "So he has told you!"
That night, the same story: the Princess settling to sleep, the creature stretched out by the fire. But when, at length, he stood and shed his skin and slipped from the room, the Princess rose from the sheets. Before she could stop herself, before the warring voices in her head could plead with her, she took up the skin and threw it into the fire's greedy flames. How it burned! A thousand colors, a brilliant firework! Suddenly, terribly, a cry of pain and rage curdled the air. There, below the window stood her husband, the Grovelhog, heast again, smoke and flames consuming him, his head thrown up roaring out his betrayal, screaming his anguish. He threw himself to the ground smothering flames, rolled over and over on the earth, while in the palace the Princess ran, ran along passage, ran down winding stair, until she was outside, running to him, tears scalding her, tears choking her. She reached him as he leapt up onto the rooster, as the animals stampeded for the gates. "Husband!" she wept. "Please! Please don't go!" But the creatures snarled and turned away from her, his quill sharp and smoking. The Princess clutched at him and was pricked terribly, falling pierced and bleeding, while the Grovelhog rode off into the night in a confusion of smoke and dust, the air thick with clamor and alarm, the bells tolling their solemn knell: betrayal and betrayal and betrayal.
For seven days and seven nights the Princess of Sweetness and Cherry Pie locked herself in her room and would not come out, but stayed, prostrate on the wooden floor, sorrowing. And the days passed-sun, then moon, then sun-while she thought and thought a hole in the hearth until she knew what she must do. She went to the the blacksmith and got from him three pairs of iron shoes, and that same night, while all slept, slipped out of the palace and set off to walk the world in search of her husband, half-man, half-hedgehog.
She walked and walked until she wore out the first pair of shoes, and still no one had set eyes on the creature. Such a walk she walked that her hair faded from red to brown. And she put on the second pair of shoes wore out while her hair faded from brown to gray, but still she walked, always searching, always praying to hear a music both bitter and sweet, beginning in hello and ending in goodbye, but nothing, no clue, no news. Until one day, weary and wretched, she came to a stream and lay down by it. The last pair of shoes had worn away to nothing, and she pulled them from her, rubbing her poor sore feet, and saw in the water's mirror that her hair was now quiet white. And the Princess of Sweetness and Cherry Pie wept for her red hair and her husband, both lost forever. Night was falling and the mist settling in, as it does in that season in that place, three pairs of iron shoes from anywhere. What could she do?
Then it seemed to the Princess that she lapsed into a dream. And in that dream she saw a bent figure walking the ground, his way lit by the swinging flare of a lamp. The man approached her, catching her face in the light, but instead of greeting her, he stumbled past, calling out into the mist. "Son!" he called, tears splashing his boots as he walked. "Hans!" The Princess got up and followed him, why she knew not, where she knew not, until they came to a cottage, an old farm cottage, long abandoned, swathed in cobwebs. Just as the cottage came into view, the lamp guttered, faded, and went out, and as the light disappeared so did the man. The Princess was at a loss. What now? she wondered. She looked about her, shaking her head as if to throw off the dream, but stopped suddenly, for there sitting in the porch of the cottage, rocking on a rocking chair, a small bundle wrapped in a shawl tight in her arms, was an old woman. The Princess watched amazed as the woman pulled back the corners of the shawl to reveal a tiny creature, half-baby, half-hedgehog. She gasped and ran to the woman, but as she reached the porched the woman disappeared and the door swung open. In went the Princess, her heart in her mouth, but inside the house was empty, only dust on the table, dust on the shutters. She sank to the floor and fell into a deep, despairing sleep.
Something woke her. A flapping. A beating of wings. She was still in the house. She hadn't dreamed it. The morning sun was pouring in, sending the dust dancing in its light. The Priness crept into the parlor in time to see a great golden eagly fly in and land on a table, it huge wings folding into rest. The Princess shrank back from the bird. Suddenly it shock and trembled, and transformed before her eyes into a strange creature, the posture of a man, the skin of a hedgehog, quills quivering. The Grovelhog! Her husband! Fear gripped her. And trepidation. The Grovelhog sat at the table and food appeared, wine. He raised his glass, unseeing, while his wife looked on. "To the health of that most beautiful woman who could not keep her promise," he whispered, and drank down her wine.
The Princess stepped forward. "Husband," she said, taking her courage. The creature swung round, his voice filling with anger. "How did you find me?" he demanded, the quills spiking. "I have walked the world to find you," his wife replied. "I have worn out the soles of three pairs of iron shoes and my hair is no longer red. I come to claim you and catch you up and snoodle you and hug you to bits." And with that she flung herself at his mercy, risking the spikes of his rage. She clung to him as he struggled, clung to him as his body trembled into a transformation, wings unfolding and shuttering, clung to him as the shape of a man emerged, disappeared, reappeared, all the while declaring her love and loyalty. She would not be thrown off, would not give in to the wings, to the spikes, to the violent shuddering, but held fast to her husband, until finally the shaking stopped and man and wife stood embracing, the spell broken. And they laughed and snoodled and hugged each other to bits, pain falling from them like feathers, like quills.
And so the Princess who could not keep her promise won back her husband through looking without hope of finding, and in time her hair grew red again and there was another wedding all over, and this time the feasting went on for forty days and forty nights and I myself was there to tell the best story there is to tell, a story that begins in hello and ends in goodbye, and or a gift they gave me a shoe worn to nothing.
And here it is.
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