When I first got the idea to write a fairy tale, I was envisioning something short—4 or 5 pages at the most. But when I started writing this story, it just kept getting longer. So, I'm going to post this story in parts. Without further ado, here is Part 1 of A Harvest Tale.
A Harvest Tale
By Catherine Mesick
Young Marta lived in the wilderness on the other side of the forest with her mother and her younger brother. Marta's father had died several years before in November, just after the harvest, and it was at harvest time that the little family missed him the most.
The family had little money, and the cottage they lived in was small and very far from other houses. To maintain their household, Marta’s mother took in sewing from the village on the more settled side of the forest. And in the summer, Marta had begun to earn a few coins doing odd jobs for the housewives in the more prosperous village.
But even the village began to feel the pinch as the cold of winter approached, and Marta was dismayed to find that that steady stream of coins she had earned had slowed to a trickle. Work became scarcer and scarcer.
One night in late November, the self-same night on which her father had died, Marta was finishing up her work for that evening, and she feared for the rest of the season. Her odd jobs had dried up until there was only this last house left—a big, old house all the way at the edge of the village right next to the forest. The work was tiring—at the moment Marta was scrubbing up the dishes after the evening meal—and the housewife Marta took her orders from was strange. The wife seemed distracted and distant, and she seldom spoke more than a few words to Marta. And Marta had never seen any other member of the household apart from the wife, though there were always sounds of other people, and there was never any shortage of cooking and cleaning to be done. Despite the oddness of the place, Marta was happy to have the work, and she felt a sharp pang of regret when the housewife told her his night would be the last night she was required.
Marta knew she was unlikely to find further work until the spring.
"Are you almost finished, Marta?" The housewife turned her fine head, and her burnished hair shone in the light from the fire in the kitchen.
"Yes, ma'am," Marta said. "All I have to do is throw the dishwater out and then tidy up a bit."
"Be quick about it," the housewife said. "Night is coming fast."
Marta hurried outside with the basin full of dishwater and threw it into the yard. Then she hurried back in and began to straighten up the kitchen. As Marta placed the dried dishes back in the cupboard, she thought she heard quick footsteps followed by muffled laughter in the room overhead. Though Marta was used to the odd noises in the house, she couldn't help but stop and glance up involuntarily at the suddenness of the sound. But she caught the eye of the housewife and quickly returned to work.
When Marta had returned the kitchen to its proper gleaming state, she approached the housewife, who was sitting at the long wooden table where Marta did much of her baking. In the center of the table was a covered basket that Marta could have sworn wasn’t there a moment ago.
"I believe I'm finished for the night," Marta said.
"And for the rest of the year," the housewife replied. "Thank you, Marta. Though I do not say it often, you have done good work. You have been a great help to me here in this house. And you have some common sense. That is rarer than you might think."
The housewife rose from the table and came toward Marta with the basket. But first she held out one slender hand.
"Here are your wages for the week, child."
The housewife pressed a handful of coins into Marta's palm.
"Thank you, ma'am," Marta said, slipping the coins into the pocket of her apron.
"I have one further thing for you," the housewife said. "A gift."
She lifted the cover on the basket to reveal three apples—each one half red, half green.
"The apples," the housewife said. "Are for your mother. I wish to thank her for sending her daughter to me. And she will know what to do with them."
The housewife placed the handle of the basket into Marta's hands.
"Thank you, ma'am."
"What will you do now?" the housewife asked. "Will you go to a new house to work?"
"I have no more work," Marta replied. "I will most likely go home until spring."
"I wish you a pleasant winter, then. Good luck."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"Be careful how you go on a night like this,” the housewife said. “There are dangers—and not just human ones."
“Do you mean animals?” Marta asked.
Marta had lived near the woods all of her life, and she had heard stories.
"Do you mean the fair folk?" she asked.
"Yes,” the housewife replied, “and the not-so-fair folk."
Marta gathered up her things and paused to light her lantern.
The housewife walked Marta to the back door, and as she stepped outside, the housewife called her back.
"The apples are for your mother, Marta. Remember that."
With that, she closed the door.
Marta hurried across the yard to the back gate and then stepped out into the dusty lane that led to the forest. The day was fading fast, and she would have to move quickly if she wanted to make the other side of the forest before night fell.
Marta plunged into the woods.
It was much darker in amongst the trees than it had been in the open lane, and Marta hurried on with only the well-worn path beneath her feet and her lantern to guide her. She was just beginning to feel swallowed up by the dark forest when she heard a rustling in the trees nearby, and she stopped suddenly and turned toward it.
"Who is it?" Marta said, holding her lantern high. "Who's there?"
There was no reply, and Marta relaxed—she figured the sound had just been an animal.
But then the rustling came again, and this time there was a voice.
"Help me, my child."
Marta strained her eyes into the gloom, and at first she saw nothing. Then the rustling grew louder, and she could see a man's form. He was struggling toward her, crawling on the ground.
Marta quickly set her lantern and basket down and hurried over to the man. She helped him to crawl up onto the path, and he sat down, leaning his back against a tree.
"Are you hurt?" Marta asked, looking the man over. His hair and beard were the color of snow, and he had clearly seen many winters. As he leaned against the tree, he closed his eyes.
"No, my child," the man said, his voice a hoarse whisper, "I am not hurt. But I have traveled many days on foot, and I am dying of thirst. Give me, I pray you, a drink of water."
"I'm sorry, Grandfather," Marta said, for a grandfather the man must be, "but I have no water. But we are not far from the village. I will help you along the path, and we can get water there."
The man opened his eyes. "You have no water?"
"None at all?"
The man's eyes shifted to the path, and he raised a trembling hand. "What is that over there?"
"That is my lantern and my basket."
"Pray tell me what is in the basket."
"Only apples, Grandfather."
"Then give me an apple. There is water in an apple."
"I cannot give you an apple, Grandfather," Marta said. "There is not enough water in an apple to do you any good. There is only a little bit, and you need much more."
"Give me an apple!" the man cried.
"I cannot," Marta said.
"You will not give me an apple?" the man said, raising his hands pleadingly.
"Why not?" the man cried. "Why will you not give me an apple for my thirst?"
"One apple would not be enough."
"Then give them all to me!"
"I cannot, Grandfather."
"The apples are for my mother," Marta said.
The man closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree.
"You will not help me."
"I didn't say that, Grandfather,” Marta said. “I will help you to walk to the village where you can get buckets and buckets full of water from the well."
The man shook his head. "I cannot walk another step."
Marta stood. "Then I will fetch water and bring it back to you."
She turned to pick up her lantern and her basket.
"Do not leave me!" the man cried piteously.
"I will only be gone a short while, Grandfather," Marta said.
She began to hurry back the way she had come, but then a brief cry made her stop and turn around.
She held her lantern high.
The man had disappeared.
Marta took a step forward. "Grandfather?"
But there was no answer, and she hurried back to the spot where he had sat, leaning against the tree. Though Marta searched the trees nearby, she could find no sign of the man or of his passage. The old man had simply vanished.
This is the end of Part 1, and I'll post Part 2 next week :)
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