It had been a bad year, in general- there were even whispers of curses, perhaps an angered witch. The harvest was not yielding as much as it should have, and no one would have a surplus at the end of it. A terrible hacking cough had swept through the village, weakening the men and women who should have been working the fields, and killing the very old and the very young. Various illnesses plagued the livestock, and many cows and goats had gone dry. As for my father and myself, we had enough money set aside that we could afford to replace the millstone- but said replacement could not be had until spring. By the time the first snow fell we had eaten through our reserves, and there was no extra food to be begged or borrowed in the village; I began to realize we might well starve before the new millstone came.
This, I knew, was indeed an hour of great need, and so when the sun was at its zenith I took myself to my mother’s grave, clutched the necklace she had given me, and began to pray.
And then I spoke her name.
“Yes, my daughter?”
She looked as she had in life- but not. She had the same translucent quality of the good spirits she had taught me to call, and my heart squeezed to see her thus. More than anything in the world I wanted to throw myself into her arms, but I knew they could not hold me. She smiled at me wistfully, and I knew it would alright.
After I had explained my troubles, she nodded, and her eyes grew distant, as though she was looking through me. A moment later there came a rustling in the bushes behind her grave, followed by a small, lovely she-goat emerging into the light.
“This is Rowan,” said my mother’s spirit, her hand hovering above the goat’s glossy black shoulder. “Her sisters are Hazel and Yew.” As she spoke their names, two more goats appeared. Hazel was the red of a banked fire, and Yew such a pure white that the snow seemed suddenly dull. They glanced at my mother, then came obediently to my side, lipping softly at my fingertips.
“Their hair- I could make wool soft as silk from this!” I exclaimed- then bit my lip. “But mother… I have nothing to feed them! They’ll die if they come with me”
“Give them golden straw to eat,” said my mother. “And sing sweetly to them as you comb their hair, and they will give you everything you need to get through the winter.”
I thanked her, and she smiled again. “Remember daughter, I can only counsel you twice more in this manner. But I will love you past forever.” And she faded from sight.
money to spare, however much they may have wanted the thread for their own. But then, one week from the day I’d visited my mother, the Tinker rolled into town.
The Tinker was much beloved in our village- for he brought the exotic goods we could not produce ourselves: pungent spices, silk ribbons, sweet dried fruit that glowed like jewels in the sunlight. This year, however, such small luxuries were not on display. Instead he showcased humble flour and smoked meats, cured furs and seed corn, and other things our village was sore in need of. Those who had no gold to spare for fine wool thread could scrape together enough to buy a few necessities from the Tinker.
I approached him with my bag of spools.
“What have you there, miller’s daughter?” he asked. “I’ve no need of flour this year.”
I shook my head. “It’s us who need flour, Tinker. And although I’ve no money, I thought you might be willing to barter for something… a little more rare.”
The man grinned, showing a hint of a gold tooth in the back of his jaw. “I love a good barter more than soft gold, child. Show me your wares.”
I opened my bag and let him look inside. His eyebrows shot up.
“May I?” he asked, reaching towards the spools.
“Are your hands clean?” I asked, my voice schooled to Housewife firm. He laughed.
“Of course, Mistress.”
I nodded, and he pulled out a spool of shining white thread. He sucked air in through the gap in his front teeth, then pulled out a spool of black, and set the pair on the sill in front of him. He looked curiously at me and I nodded, inviting him to pull out a third spool. Out came the red, glowing like banked embers.
“This comes from no ordinary wool, Mistress.” There was respect in his voice now, and perhaps even a touch of awe. “The three alone, in the hands of the right buyer, would pay for your new millstone twice over.”
“I thought as much,” I nodded. “Which is why you will be getting such a deal in spite of the fact that you will trade supplies and gold to me.”
His eyes sharpened. “Is that the way it is, Miller’s daughter?”
I smile and shake the bag, once. “You will have the only supply in the entire kingdom. Probably the world.”
The bargaining began in earnest after that.
My father and I did not starve that winter- although Rowan, Hazel, and Yew never again gave such great quantities of wool as they did that first week, and disappeared with the first warm day. I used the yarn to knit my father a sweater, and myself a lovely shawl. It was too fine, really, for a mere miller’s daughter, but it made me very happy, indeed, and whenever I fell asleep wearing it, I dreamed of happy times with my mother.
The new millstone was delivered before the snow has fully melted, and my father celebrated by going down to the tavern with a spring in his step and pocketful of gold coins, determined to share his good mood with the world. He was gone for many hours, and in fact did not return under his own power. The blacksmith knocked on my door near midnight, my father’s limp form slung casually over one powerful shoulder.
“Lass,” he said, looking a touch chagrined. I sighed and opened the door further, gesturing them in.
“Your father had a drink too many,” said the smith.
“I’d say he had more than one too many,” I said, with narrowed eyes. “Lay him on his bed, please, and do help me with his boots.”
“He was the soul of generosity tonight,” said the smith, complying with my request. “Buying drinks for everyone. Proud as a peacock of you, my dear. Stood up on a table to brag to the entire village how you’d taken their cast-off straw and spun it all into gold.”
I shook my head. “Silly,” I said, but the smith could hear my hidden smile, and he grinned back, pulling a boot off with practiced ease.
“And can you believe it? There was some stranger in the bar- skinny looking fellow, didn’t look like he knows a thing about an honest living- and this fellow must have been drunk, too, because he looks at your da and says in this nasally accent, ‘Excuse me dear man, did I hear you correctly? Your daughter spun gold... from straw?’ Well you can imagine how that set the rest of us off, laughing and snickering because who would take a thing like that for truth?” He pulled off the other boot. “But your da gets this twinkle in his eye and bellows out, ‘That she did! How else do you suppose a humble miller like myself could afford buy a drink for every one of his friends?’ and we all cheered in support of that last statement, as you might imagine.”
“Mmm,” I said, and gently nudged the giant man towards the door. “Sounds like a lot of silliness to me, but I’m glad you all had a good evening- I just hope my father doesn’t regret it in the morning, when the mill is back open for business.”
The smith left, and I tucked a blanket around my father’s now-snoring form. “Straw into gold, indeed,” I said, and bent to kiss his graying head. “What rot."