There was once a woman who loved to tell stories.
She had six children, and every night she would tell each one a different tale. When they were young the stories were short and simple, but as the children grew they became jealous of one another. They pleaded for more details, and demanded that their story should be the most exciting, longest story of all.
The woman began speaking every night at sunset, and stopped when the sun rose. Her voice grew so weak, and her walk so weary, that all of her neighbors noticed. They decided that she was gentle, biddable and obedient. The woman was too tired to tell them the truth, but every night, bitter about their uncaring ways, she made them into monsters for her children to slay.
One by one, the children grew up and left their home. The woman, now old and haggard from her sleepless years, did not know what to do. Her husband had spent so many years with his fingers in his ears that one day he had decided it was simpler just to go deaf. Her cat mewed and hissed in all the wrong places. She could not reveal her dark, violent imagination to her friends, or they would turn on her.
She cut up her oldest son’s bedsheet and wrote his story on it. It was not enough. She could not simply get the words out of her head – she had to get rid of them altogether. So she walked to the coach house and pressed the book into a peddler’s hands.
“Take this, and give it away.” She begged, “But do not sell it, lest people think they should take it seriously. Stories should be freely given.”
The peddler took the book to the next village and gave it to a skivvy in a great house. The servant was so delighted that he pressed a copper coin into the merchant’s hand. The peddler, pleased, said, “I walked here. Of course, I should be paid!” But the servant was thinking only of the story.
The woman tore up her second child’s sheet and handed over his story, “Take this, and give it away. Do not keep it for yourself, for stories should be shared.”
But the lazy peddler, content with his copper coin, hid the book away.
The skivvy read the first story to the kitchen maid, who sought out the peddler. “Give me a story of my own, and I shall give you a kiss.”
The peddler returned to the old woman, and she gave him the third tale. “Take it, and give it away. Do not trade it, for stories have no substance.”
The peddler kissed the kitchen maid, and was so overwhelmed by her beauty that he asked her to marry him. She said, “You are nothing but a poor peddler! If you prove that you can provide for me, then I shall marry you.”
The peddler took the woman’s fourth story, and barely heard her warning: “Take it, and do not boast of it, for stories will only ever be made of ink.”
Ignoring her, the peddler took the book to a lady-in-waiting and convinced her that he had written a story so marvelous that it was worth a bag of silver. He showed the money to the maid, and they were married that very day.
Before long, the maid became dissatisfied with her new life. “We sleep in a wagon and eat nothing but sawdust bread! Give me a house, or I shall leave!”
By now, the old woman knew that the peddler was untrustworthy. When he asked her for the fifth story she warned him, “Take this, and do not rely on it! Stories change as quickly as the seasons.”
But the man did not listen. He took her story to the prince, who had heard of the peddler’s fame. He paid five bags of gold for it, and was so thrilled to meet the ‘author’ that the lazy merchant was puffed up with pride. ‘Surely,’ he thought, ‘I could sell my stories for a thousand bags of gold!’ So he urged the prince to take him to the king. The prince laughed.
“How can I take you to my father? You’re nothing but a peddler! You wear sackcloth and rags!”
The peddler was furious. He took the bags of gold, and the bag of silver, and even the copper coin that the skivvy had given him. He spent every coin on silk and satin, on flashing jewels and gleaming pearls and a pair of gleaming blue boots. Dressed in his finery, he returned to the old woman and ordered her to give him another story.
“This is my last one,” She said, hiding it behind her back, “Do not claim it as your own! Stories can haunt you.”
The peddler was so angry that he pushed her away. The old woman hit her head on the mantel and fell down dead. The man buried her in the garden, saying, “I will not need her anymore. Her last story will make me rich!” Then he returned to the palace, and was admitted into the king’s chamber.
By now, the king had read every story his servants had collected. The foolish peddler, sweating in his bloody and muddy silks, opened the sixth story and read it aloud. As he turned the pages he heard for the first time how dark and terrible the woman’s stories really were. Trembling, he saw that the king’s face was black with disgust.
“You have been spreading filth in my kingdom!” He cried.
“No!” The peddler fell to his knees, “Do not punish me! I did not write it! The old witch in the village sold it to me!”
The king sent his soldiers to the village, but all they found in the old woman’s house was a freshly dug grave. They searched the peddler’s cart and found the story that he had hidden away. The peddler was dragged out of the palace, marched onto the gallows, and hanged.
Afterward, the king opened the second, hidden story and began to read. It was just as bad as he had feared. He threw it into the fire with every other book, and watched the first page char:
Once upon a time, there was a woman who loved to tell stories. She had six children…