The Three Fayes
Tell me a story...
In a small cottage there lived a widow woman and her daughter, May. Although May was smart and beautiful, she did not enjoy spinning as her mother did. The older woman would spend all her time at the spinning wheel, spinning flax into skeins. But the young daughter preferred to work outside, tending their garden and looking after the animals.
Her mother would scold her. "What hope have you of ever finding a husband!" she would say. "Skeins of flax are the only dowry we can offer."
As the years passed, she grew more and more impatient with her daughter. No matter how hard May worked outside, all her mother wanted was to have her indoors. She would shout at the girl and threaten her, but nothing would bring May to the wheel to spin. One morning the mother grew so cross with her daughter that she picked up a switch and started to chase her around the house. Poor May began to weep loudly and begged her mother to put down the switch.
Now it just so happened that that very morning the queen was passing through the town in her carriage. When she heard the sound of crying, she stopped her carriage and knocked on the cottage door.
The mother trembled when she saw the queen. Ashamed of her anger, she lied: "Your Majesty, my daughter is such a keen spinner I cannot pull her from the spinning wheel and must threaten her with a beating. Alas, we are very poor and I have not enough flax for her to spin. That is why you heard her weeping."
The queen looked at the young woman, and although the girl's eyes were swollen from crying, she could see that May was very pretty.
"I like nothing better than to listen to the hum of the spinning wheel. Let me take your daughter to the palace. There is no shortage of flax there and she can spin to her heart's content."
As they set off in the queen's carriage, May waved sadly at her mother standing by the cottage door. The mother watched her daughter go, tears rolling down her face. Although she had been angry with May, she was heartbroken to lose her. But who can refuse a queen?
On arriving at the palace, May was led into a huge room. The sight that greeted her made her gasp with dismay, for the whole room was filled with flax, from floor to ceiling, and in one corner stood a spinning wheel.
"If you spin all this flax for me," said the queen, "you shall be handsomely rewarded, for I shall give you my eldest son as your husband. You may be poor, but hard work is the best dowry a woman can offer."
With that, the queen swept out of the room. May knew that she would never be able to spin even a tiny part of all that flax. She looked at the hateful spinning wheel, dropped down onto the spinning stool and began to sob in utter despair.
Then, all of a sudden, there came a strange sound: step, thump, step, thump. May looked up and saw, standing right in front of her, a small, very odd-looking woman. Her body was crooked and misshapen, but the most striking thing about her was her huge foot. Why, it was nearly as long as the old woman was tall! May tried not to stare; instead she wiped her eyes and greeted her kindly: "Blessings be upon you, Mother."
"And blessings be upon you, child," replied the old woman. "Tell me, why do you sit here weeping?"
"I weep, Mother, because I fear my good fortune has deserted me. I have been asked by the queen herself to spin all this flax, and yet I can spin about as well as the devil can pray."
"Aah, fear not, my child," replied the old woman, "for I will spin all the flax for you this very night. All I ask in return is that you should call me Aunt and invite me to sit at your table on your wedding day, without feeling any shame."
May promised faithfully that she would do what the old woman asked and in that instant she fell into a deep sleep. When she awoke the next morning, her eyes widened with astonishment. All around her, stacked in neat piles, were hundreds of newly spun skeins, yet there was no sign of the strange old woman. At that moment there came a loud knock at the door, and the queen entered. She was scarcely less surprised than May to see all the skeins of flax, but she congratulated the girl.
"Clearly you are a skillful spinner, but how well can you throw the shuttle?"
The queen called for her attendants and the spinning wheel was taken from the room and a loom set in its place. "Weave these skeins into cloth," she said, "and I shall set a wedding day for you and my son."
Again the queen departed. May walked across the room and picked up the shuttle. She did not even know how to thread the warp threads onto the loom. Burying her face in her hands, she began to weep bitterly. If she could hardly spin, then weaving was a complete mystery to her.
Then, all of a sudden, she felt the touch of a hand on her shoulder.
Startled, she looked up and saw standing beside her another old woman as peculiar looking as the first. Although she did not have a huge paddle foot, this old woman was nearly doubled over, so hunched was her back.
"Blessings be upon you, Mother," said May. "But you did give me a fright!"
"And blessings be upon you, child. I hope I did not alarm you too much. Tell me, why do you sit here weeping?"
"I weep, Mother, because my fortune twists first one way then another. The queen has promised me her eldest son in marriage, but first I must weave these skeins of flax into cloth, and I do not know where to begin."
"Rest yourself," said the old woman, "for I shall weave the cloth for you this very night. All I ask in return is that you should call me Aunt and invite me to sit at your table on your wedding day, without feeling any shame."
May agreed at once, and once again she fell fast asleep. When she awoke the next morning, she saw rolled up in several bales alongside her the most beautifully woven flax cloth. Just as May was reaching out a hand to touch the wondrous fabric, there came a knock on the door, and the queen entered.
Although she dressed daily in the finest and most expensive clothes, the queen had never seen such exquisite fabric. She took a bale of cloth to the window and held it up to the light.
"Fine work, May," she said. "This cloth is fine enough to make the shirt for a prince to wear on his wedding day."
The queen's attendants busied themselves removing the loom, and in its place they set a table, laying on it needles, pins, scissors, and thread.
"One final task," the queen continued. "Sew me a shirt from this cloth and I will make you a princess."
As soon as the queen had gone, May took a bale of cloth and spread it across the table. She had seen plenty of shirts in her life, but had never before attempted to make one. As she stood there, staring helplessly at the cloth, a third old woman suddenly appeared in the room. Her hands were clasped in front of her and May could not help but notice her huge thumb.
"Blessings be upon you, Mother," said May.
"And blessings be upon you, my child. Tell me: why do you look so miserable?"
"Aah, Mother, I have an impossible task before me. The queen has asked me to make a shirt for the prince to wear on his wedding day, and if I succeed, I shall be his bride. But I am so ignorant: if the queen had asked me to pluck her a star from the heavens, I would have stood a better chance of success."
"Fret not, child," replied the old woman, "for I shall shape you a shirt from this cloth. All I ask in return is that you should call me Aunt and invite me to sit at your table on your wedding day, without feeling any shame."
Well, of course May agreed, and sleep spread over her at once. She dreamed of the prince and of a grand wedding. When she awoke, she saw lying on the table a shirt of such exquisite quality that kings would have fought each other to possess it. The stitching was so fine that the seams were invisible, and the buttons shone like pearls. May gave a gasp of delight. Then there came a knock at the door and the queen herself was standing beside her, marveling at the workmanship.
"If you turn out to be as fine a wife as you are a seamstress, my son will be a lucky man," she said to May. Then, taking her by the hand, the queen led her from the room.
When the prince and May set eyes on each another, they fell in love. Whenever May looked at the prince, her heart beat faster, and whenever the prince caught sight of May, a warm feeling swept through him. Soon the palace was a flurry of activity as preparations were made for the wedding.
"All I ask is that my mother and my three old aunts be invited," was May's only request amid the hustle and bustle of the preparations.
On the day of the wedding, great crowds lined the streets to wish the bridal couple well and to catch a glimpse of the guests. Carriage after carriage rolled past, shining with silver and gold, and from them stepped the most gorgeously dressed men and women, adorned in silk, velvet, and satin.
Last of all came a very strange carriage. It was made from an enormous gourd and was drawn by several pairs of large white mice. From this carriage stepped the three old women: the first with her huge paddle foot, the second with her hunched back, and the third with her enormous thumb. May stepped forward and greeted them warmly, while the king, queen, and prince looked on in amazement.
After the wedding service, May invited her three aunts to sit with the royal family at the head table. Their plates were piled high and the old women ate their fill. The prince could not take his eyes off the three strange guests. Unable to contain his curiosity any longer, he turned to the first aunt.
"Excuse me, Mother, but how did your foot come to be so large?"
"From spinning, my son," the first old woman replied. "The pedal of the wheel has caused my foot to spread and thicken to its present size."
I should hate my wife to have such a foot, the prince thought to himself. Then he turned to the second aunt. "And you, Mother, how did your back come to be so bent and crooked?"
"From weaving, my son," replied the second old woman. "From stooping over the loom and throwing the shuttle."
My wife shall never lay her hands on a loom again, the prince thought to himself. And finally he addressed the third aunt. "Your thumb, Mother. How did it come to grow so large?"
"From sewing, my son," replied the third old woman. "From licking and twisting the thread."
Thanking the three old aunts, the prince turned his attention back to May. Then, as all the guests raised their brimming goblets to give congratulations and blessings to the married couple, he announced that never again would his wife spin, weave, or sew another stitch for as long as she lived.
May never did spin, weave, or sew another stitch, and she and the prince lived happily together for many years, although in all that time she never saw the three old aunts again.
“The Three Fayes.” Batt, Tanya Robyn. The Fabrics of Fairytales: Stories Spun Far and Wide. New York: Barefoot Books, ©2000. pp. 52-61.
Used with the permission of Barefoot Books, Inc:
“’The Three Fayes,’ from The Fabrics of Fairytales: Stories Spun Far and Wide, first published in 2000 by Barefoot Books, Inc. Text copyright ©2000 by Tanya Robyn Batt.” www.barefootbooks.com