By Sharon Holzscherer
Once upon a time there lived a woodcutter who had five sons. They worked hard with their father and he was pleased with them. Then a beautiful daughter was born. Her mother named her Willow for the large tree outside the window. Soon after the mother took ill and died. The woodcutter did not know what to do with the little girl. He only knew how to teach his sons to help him.
"Everybody in this house needs to earn their keep," he would say each evening when he returned from working in the woods.
And so Willow soon joined her big brothers in the woods, helping their father to gather the sticks and logs. She never seemed to have gathered much by the time dusk was falling and they headed home. Her brothers would proudly show the large piles of wood they had collected for their father. He would smile warmly at them and give them a nice hunk of bread. Then he would look at the small, untidy pile of little Willow and frown in disapproval. All she ever got was a dried crust.
"Little Will! Little Will!" her brothers would taunt. "Can't even find the trees."
"She's always feeding the squirrels," one would yell.
"She's always talking with the birds," another would sing.
"Little Will is useless," they all cried. "She is nothing but a burden."
"What am I to do?" sighed the father.
And so the next day Willow would vow to herself that she would gather more wood than her brothers and she would set to work willingly. But soon the squirrels would be calling her to help them gather acorns and she would drop her sticks and chase them scampering through the woods. The swallows would proudly show her their new babies. The squirrels would have her check out their hiding places full of nuts and acorns. The gophers would dig tunnels and pop up just where she sat down. All day long she would talk with the animals and learn their secrets, but them dusk would come and she would trail sadly home, knowing that her pile was no bigger than the previous day.
Soon the five brothers grew bigger and stronger and their father did not have to work as hard. They would say, "Father, stay home a while and rest your weary limbs. We will gather all the wood for you."
And the father would smile with pride and perhaps stay home for a while. Then he would see Willow running like a deer through the woods, having already become separated from her brothers, and he would sigh, "That girl is nothing but a burden."
One evening when Willow was almost a woman he called her to him. "Little Will," he said. "Your brothers work hard every day while you play your foolish games. You are a burden to them and to me. It is time that you left. Yesterday I met a man in the forest. He is looking for a wife. He is an older man with six children. He will be coming by tomorrow to take you. Perhaps you will not be a burden to him."
That night Willow waited until her father and brothers had settled quietly in ther beds. She listened to their even snoring and then crept quietly to the door and sneaked out. She was dressed in the ragged pants and shirt that her brothers had thrown out. She pushed her long hair up under her cap and took the thin blanket from her bed to wrap around her shoulders to protect her from the winter's chill. She walked quickly out into the night forest. Even being eaten by wolves was preferable to the fate her father had chosen for her.
For the whole night and the next day she walked. The birds sang to her and the other animals kept her company. It was a relief not to have to think about her father's anger and disappointment. The next evening as dusk was falling she spied a castle. The day was turning cold and snow was gently falling. She hoped to find a warm place to spend the night. The gates were tightly sealed and no one answered when she pounded on the door. Perhaps the castle was deserted. Just as she was about to leave, a small door opened in the side of the gate. An old woman came out with a basket for gathering twigs.
"Excuse me, old mother," Willow said politely. "Is there some place that I might sleep tonight?"
The old woman looked at her in horror. "Young man, you do not want to sleep here tonight. Go away! Go far away!"
"Why?" asked Willow. She thought it might be better not to let the old lady know that she was a girl. "I just want a corner in the barn or some place like that."
"There is an evil sorceress who comes each night and steals the young men from our town. There are so few left now. The king has barricaded the palace so that his son, the prince, might be safe. But it is no good. The king will see. She can get through the strongest gate."
"Old mother," Willow replied. "Take me to your king. I will help him."
Fearfully the old woman led Willow inside the gate and up to the king's chamber.
Willow knelt before the haggard, old king. "Sire, I will sleep at the door of your son's chamber tonight. He will be safe."
The old king shook his head. " You do not know what you are saying, young man. The sorceress will take you, and you will be lost."
"I would like to do this, sire. I am one of six brave brothers and we have been rulers in the forest for many years." Willow did not think this exaggeration would hurt.
The sorceress could not torment her more than her brothers and perhaps this way she could be useful. "Show me his chamber and he will sleep well tonight, my lord."
Reluctantly the king had his servants show Willow to the prince's chambers.
When the prince saw her he asked, "Who is this little fellow?"
Willow looked at his fair face haloed by his hair and was speechless. He was as tall as her brothers, but they were like rough rocks compared to the shining gold of the prince.
"Well, speak up, my young man," the prince asked kindly. "What do they call you? How can I help you?"
Willow found her voice. "It is I who will help you, sir. They call me Will and I will sleep at the door of your chamber tonight."
He looked at her curiously. "Do you know what that means?" he asked. "You will be taken by the sorceress. Are you very foolish or very brave?"
"I am your servant," she muttered. Quickly she pulled the door closed and sat herself on the floor outside. She pulled her blanket around herself and fell asleep.
She awoke as a cold wind pulled at her blanket. Opening her eyes she saw a tall, white woman standing before her. She found herself standing and following the sorceress with no will of her own. The guards were standing at their posts in a trance as they walked out the gates and into the forest. Soon they came to a beautiful clearing surrounded by tall bending willow trees. The sorceress turned to Willow and said, "There are three tasks that you must do for me or you will be turned into a willow tree like these others - to spend your life bowing to me in the wind."
Willow looked the sorceress in the eye. "Tell me the three tasks and I shall do them."
The witch laughed. "You are a cocky one. Very well. The first task is to make me a necklace of jewels from the ground. I will return in one hour." With that the sorceress went into her bower in the midst of the willow grove.
Willow went into the forest and softly called to the squirrels. "Come, my little friends. I need your help."
Soon they were scampering through the trees to gather around her. She explained what she needed. "I would like to have your biggest and shiniest acorns for a necklace for the witch or I will be turned into a tree." The squirrels quickly raced to their winter caches and brought back the nicest acorns that they had. Carefully Willow strung them together with a strong vine until she had a beautiful necklace. When the sorceress returned she handed her the necklace.
"What is this?" the witch cried. "These are not jewels!"
"They are jewels of the ground," Willow replied. "I have completed my task as asked. What is the second task?"
The sorceress grumbled, but it did not matter. This youth would never complete the other two tasks. "The second task is to bring me the gray fur of the summer fox for my stole." She looked at the forest ground covered with snow and smiled evilly. "You have one hour."
When she had again returned to her bower, Willow called to the swallows. "Please bring me your prettiest down from your nests or I will be turned into a tree." Quickly the birds flew to their nests and returned with the down that had come off their nestlings. It was soft and gray and quickly Willow wove it together into a beautiful soft gray stole.
The witch was outraged when she saw the lovely stole. "You are a crafty one, young man," she said. "But you will not be able to do the last task. You are too small and frail. In the clearing there is a large rock. It stands taller than I do. I would like you to take it away. I wish to have a smooth clearing there. You have one hour."
This time Willow summoned the gophers. "Please, dear friends, dig as strong as you can beneath this rock or I will be turned into a tree."
Many gophers started digging strongly. Soon the earth beneath the rock was cleared and the rock sank into the large hole. Willow smoothed the ground over the rock until there was a smooth clearing. The witch returned and looked at the clear ground in horror. "You are a sorcerer!" she screamed. "The curse said I would be destroyed by one of my own kind!"
Willow straightened up and loosed her hair from her cap. "I am not a sorcerer. I am a woman."
The sorceress screamed as her legs grew into the ground and turned into a twisted trunk. Her arms became branches and her hair turned into leaves. At last only a crooked hawthorn tree stood in the middle of the clearing. Then the willows started to tremble and gradually turned back into the young men of the kingdom. They looked at Willow in awe.
"You have saved us," they cried. "You are indeed a worthy lady."
Willow let the men escort her back to the castle. The old woman met them at the gate with tears of joy on her cheeks. When the young men told her of their rescue she took Willow up to a chamber and dressed her in precious clothes of silk. She brushed her long hair and then took her to be presented to the king.
The old king and his son were joyously greeting their returned subjects when Willow entered. The prince looked at her in surprise. Everyone fell quiet to behold the beautiful girl in their midst. The prince walked up to her. "What do they call you? How may I help you?"
She smiled at him. "They used to call me Will, sir. But my mother called me Willow."
He recognized with surprise the gentle youth who had guarded his door and saved his kingdom. "Welcome to my home, Princess Willow," he said. Then he turned to present her to the king.
The king asked her what she wanted in exchange for saving the kingdom. "Anything you want shall be yours."
Willow thought but she had no wishes. Her father and brothers were well enough left in the forest. She had become a woman and proved her worth. "I am looking for a warm place to spend the night, sire." She smiled serenely.
1996 by Sharon Holzscherer