Once, not so far from here, a girl lived with her grandmother in an old stone house. The child’s parents had died when she was a baby, and Grandmother was now her guardian. Day after day, year after year, the girl sat locked in her small attic bedroom, seeing and speaking to no one, speaking to no one but her grandmother. ‘People are treacherous,’ Grandmother told her. ‘Someone might try to steal you away from me.’
The girl spent her days sewing and weaving, and spinning, and sometimes she sang as she worked: little songs she made up herself, for she knew no others. Her voice was so beautiful, that when she sang, the birds of the air fell silent and listened.
In the evenings Grandmother sat by the girl’s bed and told her stories of the great world outside. ‘I wish I had a mother and father,’ sighed the girl, ‘and brothers and sisters to play with.’
‘But you have me,’ said Grandmother. ‘We have each other. Are you so unhappy with your old granny?’
‘Oh no, Grandma! I love you best in all the world.’
‘Ah, that’s my good girl,’ said Grandmother, and hugged her tight.
A mile or so across the fields lay a wood. Grandmother had warned her granddaughter that the wood was an evil place. Demons lived there that could take any shape, man or beast. ‘Never look at the wood for very long,’ she told her, ‘or you will go blind.’
So the girl sat with her back to the window and worked harder than ever at her needlework. But there were times, day and night, when the wind blew a sweet, wild perfume into the room; and then, just for a moment, the girl would glance out of the corner of her eye at the wood, and the fields, and the bright sky. Once, she became so entranced by a brown bird gliding in circles above the wood, that she stayed watching until her eyes began to smart. Terrified, she ran to the door and hammered on it till the whole house shook. ‘Grandma! Grandma!’ she wailed. ‘I’m going blind!’
Grandma came hobbling up the stairs. She poked a finger under the girl’s eyelids, first one, then the other. ‘You will not go blind,’ she said. ‘Not this time’. She pulled the curtains across the window until only a small thread of light shone through. ‘Sunlight is dangerous,’ said Grandmother. ‘You must keep away from it’.
The room was now so gloomy that the girl had to light a lamp to see her needlework. She could hear the birds singing outside in the sun, and the tall grasses rustling in the wind; and she longed to look at them. ‘If sunlight is so dangerous,’ she said to herself, ‘why doesn’t the grass wither up? Why don’t the birds drop dead?’ She got up and went to the window, and drew the curtains back a little, and a little more. Then she set up her mirror so that a portion of the wood and the fields and sky would be reflected there when she combed her hair each morning and evening.
The girl had begun working on a shawl, to be finished in time for her eighteenth birthday. ‘When you wear it,’ said Grandmother, ‘it will protect you from all danger.’
The girl did not like the shawl; she did not like its drab colour or the harsh, tight feel of it. ‘Grandmother wears black,’ she said to herself. ‘We will look like sisters.’ But she wanted to please her grandmother, who loved her best in all the world. So she worked night and day at the shawl, and in a very short time it was almost half done.
One evening, as the girl sat at the mirror combing her hair and singing, she saw a young man dressed in green ride out of the wood on a chestnut horse. In her astonishment she forgot her grandmother’s warning, and ran to the window. The young man smiled up at the girl as he rode past, and tossed her a bright orange fruit. It bounced against the window ledge and fell into the girl’s hand.
She bent to smell the fruit, touching its skin with her nose. It felt smooth and hard, and smelt of spice. ‘Grandmother!’ she called. ‘Come and look — quickly!’ The old woman came hobbling up the stairs and with an angry cry snatched the fruit out of the girl’s hand. ‘Stupid child!’ she scolded. ‘Can’t you see what this is? It’s a toadstool — devil’s fruit! If you were to eat it, the venom would pour into your veins and you would die a slow and painful death. You must tell me where it came from. Who gave it to you?’
‘A young man dressed all in green threw it to me as he passed by on his horse,’ said the girl. ‘He came out of the wood ...’ Her eyes began filling with tears. ‘Have I done wrong, Grandma?’
Grandmother slipped a strong arm around her. ‘You are such a child,’ she said gently. ‘Whatever would you do without old granny to look after you?’
The girl shivered and burrowed into her grandmother’s lap. ‘He must be a very wicked person, that man in green,’ she whispered.
‘Everything that comes out of the wood is evil,’ said her grandmother.
Days passed. The girl worked hard at her shawl. Then one morning the man in green came riding by again. As he passed under the girl’s window, he smiled and waved to her.
‘Wretch!’ shouted the girl. ‘Poisoner!’ And snatching a basin of dirty slops, she heaved it over his head. The horse reared up in fright, whinnying and snorting as it galloped away with the man in green clinging on for dear life.
‘Splendid!’ chuckled the old woman when the girl told her what she had done. ‘But next time he shall have a pan of boiling oil, and that will be the end of him.’
One night soon after, the girl was wakened by a soft rustling noise under her window. She looked out and saw the man in green on his chestnut horse. The horse paced gently, its breath steaming in the cold air. Above, the sky swarmed with stars.
The man in green looked up at her, smiling. ‘Did you enjoy the orange?’ he asked her.
The girl stood frozen against the window, too terrified to move or speak. ‘What’s the matter?’ said the man in green ‘I won’t bite.’ He slipped a hand into his pocket and drew out two orange fruits. ‘Look,’ said the man in green, and began juggling them in the air.
Suddenly the girl found her voice. ‘Stop it!’ she cried. ‘Take those poisonous things away! Someone might eat them and die.’
The man in green stared at her in surprise. ‘Who says so? Who says they’re poisonous?’
‘My grandmother,’ the girl replied. ‘She says your devil fruits are full of venom and if I was to eat one I would die a slow and painful death.’
‘Really?’ said the man in green. ‘And you believe that?’
‘Of course,’ replied the girl severely. ‘My grandmother doesn’t lie.’
‘And neither do I,’ said the young man. ‘And I say the orange is a gentle fruit that wouldn’t harm man or beast.’ He winked. ‘Watch this.’ Taking a knife, he began to peel the orange. Then, as the girl watched in horror, he broke the fruit into quarters, and popped each one, dripping with juice, into his mouth. ‘Now,’ said he, ‘we shall have to wait and see what happens, won’t we? Farewell, lady.’ Then he spurred his horse and sped back into the wood.
The old woman was very angry when she heard that the man in green had been by again. ‘It was a trick!’ she growled. ‘Can’t you see that? A sleight of hand. What the demon showed you was a confection — an orange-coloured look-alike, to lull your suspicions.’ She took the girl’s hands and squeezed them tightly in hers. ‘Oh what a child you are! Didn’t I tell you the wood is evil? That is why you must hurry to finish your shawl. I am an old woman, and won’t always be here to protect you.’
The girl knelt down and laid her head in the old lady’s lap. ‘Please don’t talk like that, Grandma. God will never take you from me. We need each other too much ... As for that man,’ she added, ‘he is wicked and I wish he would die.’
When her grandmother had gone, the girl set to work on the shawl. Every now and then she glanced in the mirror, hoping to see the man in green ride out of the wood, so that she could run and warn her grandmother. But he didn’t come — not that day, nor the next, nor the day after.
It was summer now, and the evenings were hot. One night, the girl woke from a restless dream with an echo of horses’ hooves ringing in her head. She jumped out of bed and ran to the window. In the field below the man in green was sitting quite still on his horse, as if asleep. ‘Quickly!’ she whispered to herself. ‘Run, run and tell Grandma!’ But somehow she could not. Her feet remained frozen to the ground as she stared down at the man in green.
And then he looked up and saw her. ‘You see,’ he smiled, ‘I’m still here after all. So what do you say to that, you and your grandmother?’
‘It was a trick,’ said the girl. ‘My grandmother says you ate something else — something different.’
The young man sighed. ‘Some people will never be convinced.’ He delved into the pocket of his green felt jacket and produced a knife and an orange. ‘Watch closely,’ said he, and proceeded to cut the orange in half. One portion he ate himself, the other he threw to the girl. ‘Believe me or not,’ said the man in green.
The girl stared at the fruit glistening in her hand, and began to tremble. It smelt delicious, irresistible.
‘You don’t have to eat it, you know,’ said the young man. ‘It’s your choice.’ The girl shut her eyes tight. ‘I mustn’t,’ she murmured, ‘I shan’t eat it.’ And then she took a deep breath and swallowed the fruit. She stood there, clutching her throat, feeling the orange slither down into her stomach. ‘Oh, what have I done?’ she cried. ‘Will I die?’
The young man laughed. ‘Of course not,’ said he. ‘Oranges never killed anyone ... Look, I’ve a present for you, a keepsake to bring you luck. He held up a small object that gleamed in the moonlight. It was a locket, engraved with leaves and flowers. ‘Catch,’ said he, and tossed it up to her.
The girl stared at the locket. ‘What do I do with it?’ she said, frowning.
‘Unwind the thread, and you’ll see.’
The girl turned the locket over in her hand. A tiny sliver of fine thread, pure gold and strong as wire, extended from one end. She tried to pull it out, but it was wedged too tight.
She tapped the locket with her fingers and shook it, but still the thread would not move. ‘I can’t get it out,’ she said.
‘There’s a knack to it,’ smiled the young man. ‘You’ll find out ...’ And waving to her, he galloped back to the wood.
The girl hid the locket under her mattress where Grandmother would not see it. ‘If I become ill and die,’ she told herself, ‘it will be God punishing me for my disobedience. But if I do not, then I will not trust my grandmother’s word again, ever.’
In the morning she woke feeling strangely happy. The sweetness of the orange was still in her mouth. She went to the window and peeped out. It was a beautiful morning, cool and still. The long grass glittered with spider webs in the sunlight. As she stood there watching, the man in green stepped out suddenly from the shadow of the wood and waved. She waved back, and at once drew away from the window, startled by her own boldness. She went to the bed and took the locket from under the mattress. To her surprise she found the golden thread was now about three feet long. It dangled from its case, shining in the shaft of sunlight. ‘It must have grown in the night,’ she said to herself. ‘How strange!’ She put the locket back under the mattress and sat down to work on her shawl. But she felt restless; and after awhile she laid it aside and sang quietly to herself, rocking in her chair.
When Grandmother came in with the girl’s breakfast, she ran her fingers over the shawl and shook her head. ‘You will have to do better than this,’ she grumbled, ‘if the shawl is to be ready in time for your birthday.’
The girl looked thoughtful. ‘When it is finished,’ she said, ‘will I be able to walk through the whole house, wherever I please?
‘Of course you will, my poppet,’ said Grandmother. ‘Anywhere you wish.’
‘And will I be able to walk in the garden?’
‘Certainly,’ said Grandmother,’ when the weather is warm enough.’
‘And will I also be able to walk in the fields?’ asked the girl.
Grandmother frowned. ‘Why ever should you want to do that, child?’
‘Other people do,’ said the girl. ‘And you said the shawl will protect me from all danger.’
Grandmother shook her head. ‘You don’t understand,’ she said softly. ‘The shawl will protect you from harm in and around the house, but the world outside the gate will always be too dangerous. You are still only a child ...’
The girl bit her lip. ‘I am not a child,’ she said angrily. ‘In thirty days I shall be eighteen, and old enough to choose for myself. It would be nice to walk in the fields sometimes.’
Grandmother’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Ah,’ she whispered, ‘you don’t love your old granny any more! And after all I’ve done for you.’
The girl reached for her grandmother’s hand and held it tight. ‘Poor Grandma,’ she said. ‘You know I wouldn’t hurt you — not for the whole world. I will do what you say — always.’
But afterwards, as she worked on the shawl, she began to feel restless again. She found herself thinking about the orange fruit the man in green had given her to try. It had not been poisonous after all, but harmless — and delectable. ‘Not everything that comes out of the wood is evil,’ the girl said to herself.
Presently she took the locket and held it to her breast as she sang a little song; and as she sang, the thread began to slide out of the locket, unwinding faster and faster, until it stretched from the bed to the floor, and further still. It lay there like a long bright hair gleaming in the shaft of light.
The girl grew fearful as she watched the thread moving across the floor; it was as if in some way the locket was alive and dancing to her tune. She quickly slipped it back in its hiding place and returned to the shawl. And soon after that she made a strange discovery: whenever she worked on her shawl, the thread would slip back inside its case; yet when she pulled the curtains back to look at the sky and the stars, and the birds wheeling above the wood, and sang with happiness at seeing these things, it slid joyously out again across the floor, filling her with wonder, and a little dread.
The girl’s birthday was now less than a week away, and the shawl was still unfinished. Grandmother was displeased. ‘You have been singing too much,’ she growled. ‘It distracts you from your task. ‘You should work in silence until the shawl is complete.’
The girl hung her head. ‘I am sorry, Grandmother,’ she said. I will work harder, and not sing.’
But in secret she continued to sing softly to herself so that her grandmother would not hear. And she did no work on the shawl. ‘I will start tomorrow,’ she told herself. ‘I will work for two whole days and nights. And then it will be finished.’ But the next day she sat staring at the shawl and did nothing. It seemed to her that the shawl was like a hooded bird: its blackness filled the whole room.
That night, she woke crying from a dream. In her dream the shawl had flown up like a black crow and wrapped itself around and around her neck, squeezing the breath out of her body. She could still feel the coldness on her skin as she ran to the window and flung the curtains wide open.
Below in the field, she saw a white horse tethered and saddled. A sweet, strange perfume was blowing from the wood, that made her feet want to dance. She ran to the bed and snatched the locket from under the mattress. The thread tumbled out in a great spool across the floor. Quickly tying the locket around the foot of the bed, she lowered the unravelling thread over the window ledge and down the other side until it dangled just above the horse’s mane. Then she gripped the thread firmly in her hands and climbed out of the window.
The thread was sharp as fine steel, and it bit into her hands so that she cried out with the pain. But the next moment she was on the white horse galloping across the fields, the thread still clutched in her hand and unravelling behind her in the moonlight.
As she reached the edge of the wood, she was startled to see the man in green waiting there, astride his chestnut horse.
‘I hoped you would come,’ he said. ‘Don’t be frightened of the wood. You will come to no harm there so long as you trust me, and hold onto the thread.’
But as he said that, Grandmother was hobbling up the stairs to the girl’s bedroom. She had been wakened by the rattle of a casement swinging in the wind. ‘Girl!’ she shouted. ‘Your window’s open!’ She flung open the bedroom door and ran first to the empty bed and then to the wide open window. ‘Oh, you wicked, wicked girl!’ she cried. ‘Come back! Come back!’ With her strong hands she tore the locket from the foot of the bed and wound it round and round her fist. ‘Come back!’ she cried again, and gave the thread a sharp tug.
Out on the edge of the wood, the girl felt the thread bite into her hand. ‘Oh, my poor dear grandmother!’ she cried. ‘I have left you behind, all on your own. How will you live without me?’
The man in green leaned towards her. ‘How will you live if you stay? Think of that.’
But now there was another tug on the thread, fiercer this time. She was being pulled backwards, towards the edge of the saddle. ‘My shawl!’ she wailed. ‘I haven’t finished my black shawl! It was to keep me safe from danger ...’
The man in green gripped her arm and held tight. ‘That shawl,’ he said, ‘would have changed you into an old woman. Your lovely voice would have turned to stone in your throat. You would never have looked at the fields again, or the wood, or the night sky full of stars ... Look!’ A path had opened up among the trees. ‘Quickly!’ urged the man in green. And their horses leapt away together into the wood.
At that moment, the old woman came tumbling out of the bedroom window, pulled by the thread still tightly wound around her wrist. It dragged her over the cobblestone path, and through the icy pond, and across the stubble fields until at last she tangled in a clump of thorn bushes that tore at her hair and her eyes. And there she lay, still as a stone.
Meanwhile, the riders had come to a fork in the wood where five paths crossed. ‘Which way?’ asked the girl.
‘You must choose,’ said the man in green.
‘But there are so many turnings,’ said the girl.’ Please choose for me.’
‘No,’ he said firmly, ‘you must choose. First close your eyes and listen.’
The girl closed her eyes. First she heard leaves stirring, and the ripple of water, and the scuffle of tiny feet. And then, further away, music. She opened her eyes, and saw figures in the distance, dancing. ‘I am going that way,’ she said, pointing.
The man in green smiled. ‘Good,’ said he, ‘very good. Because, as it happens, I am too.’ He lifted the hem of his cloak and she saw that he carried a lute strapped to a tasselled girdle of gold around his waist. ‘I’m a troubadour, you see,’ said the man in green.
‘And I’m a singer,’ said the girl. ‘I make up my own songs.’
‘Excellent,’ said the man in green. ‘We can play for our supper in the houses of the rich.’
But just then the girl felt a ghostly tug on the thread that she still clutched in her hand. ‘People are treacherous,’ she said nervously. ‘They may try to rob us.’
The young man reached out and took her hand. ‘Then we must look after each other,’ he whispered. ‘Come.’
And together they rode deeper into the wood.