Once upon a time…
There was a king with a daughter so proud and clever he had a hard time getting her married off.
No one was good enough for her, and she put her wit poorly to use finding uniquely appropriate insults for each suitor– priding herself on never using the same insult twice.
She was making enemies and losing friends for her father, but the princess didn’t care. Finally, and at the end of a long line of last chances, the princess came face-to-face with a young king that she could find no fault in.
Unwilling to admit defeat, she brushed his narrow gotee with her finely formed fingers and laughed, calling him “King Thrushbeard,” and acted as though she thought him a very plain-looking man.
Turning from the princess the young king bowed slightly to the girl’s father and walked out without looking back. The old king was furious.
“The first beggar,” cried he, “the first swineherd, the first musician– the first thing at my gates that will pass as a man and take you away– you will marry him that same hour.”
The princess didn’t believe him, but the next morning as she ate her breakfast she heard her father speaking to someone as he approached the high table.
It was a beggar. A scraggly man with a dirty face who looked like he’d never eaten well in his life.
The princess was about to object to eating in the same room with such a man when the king raised his voice.
As I swore yesterday, I now hold to my word: Behold the bridegroom of the princess.”
The princess blanched, then nearly fainted as she heard her father say he would not allow the wife of a beggar to sit at the high table. Two soldiers guided her stumbling feet to the step where the beggar sat, eating scraps. She began to weep and was unable to eat any more.
With only a small, poor bundle, she was turned out of the palace to follow her new husband, and they walked for many days as they worked their way back to his homeland.
The princess could tell when they left her father’s lands, and in spite of her own disappointments admired the fine fields they passed through. Plucking up courage she asked her husband, “Whose fields are these?”
“King Thrushbeard’s,” he answered.
“Alas, if only I had chosen him,” the princess replied.
They crossed a lovely river that powered several mills, a great city, and into a deep and massive forest. Each time the princess inquired who owned them, and each time mourned her folly in rejecting the King Thrushbeard.
“Now, see here,” her new husband finally said. “I may be poor, but even I won’t have my wife pining off over some other man.”
When they reached a run-down cabin, the beggar told her she must learn to keep house, so he could seek food and proper work. Never having learned anything necessary for the maintaining of a home, the princess couldn’t even get a fire started.
Her husband then tried to teach her how to weave baskets, that she might sell some in the marketplace, but her fingers were so soft and weak that the sharp sticks cut them and made her hands bleed.
Her husband then managed to get some clay pots and bowls on credit, for her to sit with in the marketplace, and for a while the princess felt that she might actually make herself useful. She was so pretty, and she looked so sorrowful sitting there with her goods, that she was able to sell everything for several days running.
Then, one morning as she set out her pottery, a drunkard on a huge black horse came galloping through the marketplace and crushed or ruined everything she had worth selling.
“Didn’t you know better than to set up on a corner with breakable goods?” her angry husband asked.
“No,” she said. “I didn’t.”
Having run out of credit, the husband nosed about until he found her a job in the palace kitchens, and the former princess began to learn about the lowest jobs of the scullery. Knowing how hungry they always were at home, she humbled herself enough to beg the scraps from the high cook.
He was a generous-hearted fellow, and always gave her whatever he could spare, and the young couple began to eat better.
After several weeks in the scullery, the high cook told the former princess that there was to be a great ball that evening, and he would let her out to go home early if she would like to see the grand people arriving.
Curious to see see palace life again, the girl thanked him. And after collecting her portion of dinner scraps in the pouch she always tied at her waist, she crept up to the main areas of the palace.
Unable to resist the music, she crept through the doors of the servants’ entrance into the enormous ballroom. There were other servants watching from the shadows as well, and she asked one of them what the celebration was for.
“The king has returned from seeking his bride,” the younger girl answered.
Swallowing her disappointment the princess looked about for the king and his new queen. Without realizing it she stepped from the shadows as she saw the king. He no longer had his small beard and seemed more handsome than ever.
His eyes met hers and she realized she’d stepped out of place. Certain he’d recognized her and unable to bear his scorn she tried to retreat, but the bodies behind her prevented it. The king walked to the princess and invited her to dance.
“No, thank you, Majesty,” she said, avoiding his eyes. “You are married now, to one much more your equal. As am I.”
The music began suddenly and the king she’d called Thrushbeard scooped her into a dizzying twirl. Her feet delighted in the familiar movement, but her mind became more and more aware of the ties on the sack of kitchen scraps coming loose from around her waist.
She tried unsuccessfully to pull away from the dance, but they only spun faster, until, with the final flourish of the song, the bag flew from her and landed with an unnaturally loud *splot* in the middle of the ballroom floor.
Their food– their only source of food– spilled out. And before all these grand people too.
After a brief moment of indecision the princess darted for it, bending in the mess to salvage what she could. Feeling she could not be more ashamed than at that moment, the princess nearly choked when she saw the young king kneeling on the floor beside her.
He helped her push the scraps back into the bag in the silent room. Then, taking up the bag, and offering her his other hand, they stood together. She tried to reach for the bag, embarrassment burning her face, but he gently kept it out of reach as they walked to the edge of the room.
“Please,” she said. “I am very sorry a dirtied your floor, but I really need that sack to take back home.”
King Thrushbeard made her face him and lifted her bowed head to look in his eyes.
“You will never need that sack again,” he said. “And you are home.” Looking full in his face for the first time, the princess recognized her husband.