Once upon a time there was a king who had been blessed with seven sons, one for each year of marriage. His wife was pregnant again, and his happiness could not have been greater. Eight sons! Soon, eight young men to send out as ambassadors, to go to war for him, marry princesses from distant kingdoms… The king liked to entertain visions of their grand future. But too much rumination can lead you down strange paths. Seven gifted, ambitious young men vying for their father’s favour. Seven who might soon get ideas. Many a brother had been poisoned by another in a scramble for the throne. Many a father…
Overnight the father’s pride turned to anguish. In ten years his oldest son would be eighteen, and he barely forty, much too young to relinquish the throne to an ambitious young wolf. And what if his brothers backed him? What if the old king had no choice but flee or die, as his kingdom descended into chaos?
Please, he prayed, let this not be another son. Let this child be a girl. Girls are pliable; I’ll marry her to a young man of my choosing, competent, but not too ambitious. My grandchildren will be my heirs, and by the time they’re grown, I’ll be too old to reign anyway. Please, let fate give me a girl.
Whether fate obliged or he just got lucky is anyone’s guess. But soon after that a baby girl was born. There was great celebration and merriment in the palace, and on the seventh day of feasting, the king, who’d had a cup too many, stood up and declared:
‘By the gods, I solemnly do swear: from this day this little girl shall become my first and only heir! My sons shall be my sons no more, and this little princess shall bear the future king! All hail!’
The guests coughed and looked at each other in shock. The queen threw herself at his feet, begging and pleading, and at last the king realised that he had spoken too fast; but he had taken the gods as witnesses, and could not go back on his word. The queen left the banquet sobbing, to gather the young boys in her arms and carry them out of the castle.
‘My poor boys, you cannot stay,’ she said. ‘You are not the king’s sons anymore. Neither he nor I can protect you. Anywhere would be safer than this place.’
She closed her eyes and thought hard about what to do next. Seven young boys, alone in the woods, would be dead within a month. But she knew of someone who might help: an old witch, who rarely spoke to anyone except in curses. She took her sons with her. When she came back to the castle, she was alone. But her eyes were dry, and she never mentioned the boys again.
The princess grew up alone, unaware that she’d had brothers once. She played with the servants’ children in the palace, and became known for her good, caring nature. The king doted on her and was already sending portraits to faraway lands, unbeknownst to her, hoping to secure a husband he might bend to his will. But the gods were fickle, and perhaps he had managed to annoy them for good, by demanding they bear witness to an unjust oath. One day, the princess disappeared from the palace. All the soldiers and hunters sent to the forest to find her couldn’t bring her back.
What had become of the girl? Well, she had noticed a chaffinch gathering twigs for its nest, and followed it into the forest. There she had scrambled across a path of blueberries, eating until her hands and face were blue with sticky juice. Then she had followed a rabbit’s trail. Then… night fell, and she had no idea where she was.
This could had gone very badly for her, if, at that moment, she had not noticed a light between the trees. She got closer, and lo! There was a little house, with smoke coming out of the chimney and the smell of roasted parsnips drifting around. She only hesitated for a moment: everybody knew there were witches living in the woods, but their homes smelled of enticing things like cakes and toffee, not vegetables. She knocked on the door.
Everything fell silent. Then a voice from inside: ‘Who goes there?’ Then another: ‘Brother, be quiet! Do you want to give us away?’ Emboldened, the princess called: ‘Please, would you let me in? I’m lost and I’m hungry, and…’ she had nothing to offer, but hearing only men’s voices inside, she soon figured out a solution: ‘I can clean up your house if you like. I help servants do it at times. Would that do?’
The door opened. Behind it, a young man, a year or two older than her, peered as she gave a blueberry-stained grin. Something about him looked eerily familiar.
‘I won’t be any trouble,’ she said. ‘I can sleep by the chimney. Thank you so much for letting me in.’
Now she was completely reassured. Little men living together in the forest were supposed to be harmless, as long as you didn’t mind sweeping their doorstep. There were seven of them, all dressed in rags; the oldest in his early twenties. But in spite of the austere surrounding and the air of uncivilised ruggedness about them, she instantly found herself drawn to that little house, with those silent, gaping men watching her come in as if she was an envoy from the heavens…
‘Holy crap,’ the eldest said. ‘You’re our little sister!’
Now it was the princess’s turn to gape.
‘Good sir, you must be mistaken,’ she said. ‘I’ve never had any brothers. In fact, I’m…’ she paused, not knowing if they would believe her.
‘The king’s daughter, we know,’ the man said. ‘The sister we’ve all been banished for.’
His voice was hard, but as he told her the whole story and her eyes filled with tears, it softened. None of it was her fault, they knew.
‘But how did you survive, all alone in the forest?’ she asked.
‘By the help of a witch,’ her brother said. ‘At our mother’s request, she changed us into wild swans. Swans are hardier than little boys. It’s not much of a life, but it saved us. We become men again for one day every year, long enough to remember who we are. Tomorrow we will become swans again.’
‘Tomorrow? But that cannot be! I’ve only met you, how can I lose you so soon?’
Her brother shook his head, sadly.
‘We wish it could be otherwise, too. We’re men now. We’re not helpless. But the witch’s spell is potent, and cannot be broken. Go back to the palace, little sister, and come visit us next year. It’s a comfort to know you’ve acknowledged us. You were just a baby. None of it is your fault.’
‘My fault or not, I can’t lose you like this!’ She started to cry, and her brothers’ best efforts couldn’t console her. The next morning, she woke up with puffy eyes and an aching head, just in time to see seven swans fly out of the window.
Enough crying, she thought. I have to go back to the castle and demand an explanation. But just as she thought of her father, pictures came back to her mind. His hollow cheeks, perpetual sadness, the way his voice broke when he told her she would marry one day and he would have a son at last. Her father had been a fool, a well-meaning, short-sighted, incompetent one. She pitied him now, but she knew he would be unable to do anything. If she wanted a solution, she would have to find it herself.
And only one person could help her. She set out through the forest, and in the daylight, followed the rabbit’s tracks again, through the blueberry patch and out of the forest. But instead of going back to the castle, she headed towards the village, where a little hut still stood, as it had fifteen years before.
She knocked on the door. ‘Go away!’ was the first answer. She called: ‘Old mother, I want my brothers back. You helped survive for fifteen years. Please help me turn them back into men!’
At that, the door opened. ‘My my,’ said the old woman. ‘You do look like your brothers.’
The princess came in. Inside, it smelled of smoke and unwashed socks.
‘Unfortunately it was a very potent spell,’ the witch said. ‘One can’t do anything less when the gods have been called as witnesses. There might be something. But it will cost you.’
‘I can always clean your house,’ the princess said, a little too eager. The witch frowned.
‘My house is clean enough,’ she replied, dryly. ‘And this is not the sort of cost I’m talking about. Though of course, you’ve lived a pampered life. A little cleaning sounds like a big deal to you, doesn’t it?’
That stung, but the princess didn’t say anything.
‘I’m talking about years of work,’ the witch said. ‘When such harm has been done, it takes great sacrifices to undo it. And it all falls on you.’
‘But I never asked my father to do this!’ the princess blurted out.
‘No, you didn’t. But willing or not, you enjoyed the wealth of the palace and the attentions of the court all to yourself. It was done for you, and as such, it’s your responsibility. But what you really want is merely to show the world how good your intentions are…’
‘Stop it. I want a solution. I’ll do what it takes. Just tell me.’
The witch shrugged.
‘Fine. If you want to undo the spell, you will have seven years to weave seven shirts out of nettles. And you cannot say a word in those seven years. If a single sound comes out of your mouth, your brothers will remain swans forever.’
‘But… you can’t make cloth out of nettles. They sting. They’re…’ The withering glare the witch shot her told her she was saying something stupid, though she had no idea what. ‘Nettle shirts. All right. But can you at least show me how?’
‘They taught you how to spin and weave, didn’t they?’
‘Not really. There was that legend about what happened to princesses who got too close to spinning wheels, and…’
The witch muttered under her breath, something that sounded like ‘hopeless’.
‘I’ve told you what you need to know. Now do it, or don’t. If you speak a single word from now on, your brothers are doomed.’
And the old woman opened the door. The princess had no choice but nod, clamping her lips shut, and leave.
How does one make cloth out of nettles? she wondered in despair. She wandered all day around the village. Then a pungent smell, like rot, caught her nose. She looked ahead, and in a pond, she saw bunches of flowers, left there to decay in the sun.
Why would someone leave flowers to rot? she wondered. But a while after, a woman came to the pond, felt the stalks between her fingers, and took some of them home with her. The princess followed from afar. The woman stopped before her house, broke up the stalks and extracted long strips of stringy material. Then she combed them together, tied the end to a spindle, and started spinning.
The princess watched her with widening eyes. In a couple of hours, what she had first taken for rotting refuse had been turned into a spool of thread. So that was how you made fabric out of plants! She went out to the fields where the sheep grazed, and where she knew she would find paths lined with thick walls of nettles. Tearing strips from her dress to make gloves, she gathered a huge bunch of green, stinging stalks, and found a spot of the river where the waters quieted down.
Her first batch of nettles she left too long in the water, and they rotted to fragments. The second batch she didn’t leave long enough, and the fibres shattered in her hands. The third batch she got just right. She took a comb from her hair to card the fibres, stuck a piece of wood in an apple so she could spin it with a flick of her wrist, and made her first length of thread. None of it was easy. It took her more trips to the village to observe the women spinning flax in front of their homes before she figured out a way to make thread that wouldn’t break. Days had elapsed at this point. She ate blueberries and scraps from refuse piles, and she was perpetually hungry. One day she spotted soldiers from the castle, looking for her. She had to leave. She gathered her thread and her makeshift spindle, and set out on the roads of the kingdom.
Days passed, then weeks. What had felt at first like an impossible task started to make sense. She could now pick out the best nettles, leave them to ret just long enough, and she had made a better spindle, carving wood to a perfect shape with a sharp stone. At first she begged for scraps, but eventually, she figured out how to make fire, fashion a pot from clay she had gathered in the hills, and boil nettle leaves into soup. She grew leaned, stronger. When she met people, she smiled and curtsied, but kept her mouth tightly shut. Soon everyone around the country knew about the dumb beggar-girl, who was always pleasant to everyone, always willing to help old women carry firewood around and lending a hand in exchange for a little bread. Once or twice, she met people from the palace, asking about the lost princess. They didn’t recognise her and wished her a good day as she walked away, silently smiling.
After a while she learned how to make fine, silky thread from the best nettle fibres. She fashioned a loom, using stones to weight down warp threads. Her first bit of cloth was plain, but smooth to the touch, and when she pictured her brothers wearing their shirts and turning back into humans, her eyes filled with tears. There was so much work to do.
In autumn, she gathered acorns to make flour, leaving them in the river next to her retting nettles until they lost their bitterness. She dug up burdock roots and dried blueberries for the winter. She made a little hut with woven branches and clay to withstand the cold days. Her arms were strong now, and could carry firewood over miles. Women from the village came once or twice, admiring the fineness of her nettle thread and badgering her for her secret, but she just smiled and shook her head. She bartered a few spools for sewing needles, scissors and a thimble, and by the end of the winter, she had sewn her first shirt.
Four years passed. At nineteen, her body was lean and her face dirty, but she carried herself with the upright stance of a queen. And so fate decided it was time for another twist. One day a prince rode through the woods, and stopped at her door for a drink of water. He was mightily surprised when the occupant of the place turned out to be a smiling, confident young woman! He thanked her and rode back to the palace, unaware that from then on, he would be unable to take his thoughts away from her.
But as days went by, he reached a decision. He went back to the hut, got down on his knees, and asked the maiden to marry him. She looked at him up and down, remembered the many nights when she had gone to sleep exhausted and so lonely, and nodded, once, with a smile.
They were married the next day, in secret, then he brought her back to the castle. His mother was less than pleased, but the old king was ill, and she would soon depend on her son if she wished to live her old days as a respected dowager, so she welcomed her daughter-in-law with a tight smile. She did ask what the young bride wanted to do with that spindle and those four nettle shirts she seemed to treasure like jewels, but the young woman didn’t speak. And so her life carried on, unchanged in most ways, completely different in others. She was pleased with her husband; years of living on her own in the forest had washed out any hint of shyness left in her, and though she couldn’t speak, she made sure he knew how to please her. He was glad to comply, and delighted by this mysterious, silent bride, even though he yearned for the sound of her voice.
Now this queen had made a fortune shipping in fine silk and cotton from remote lands. Her castle was the wealthiest around, but there had been a price to pay. The common folks, those unable to afford silk and cotton, had to pay exorbitant taxes for simple woven goods; that was how the queen convinced people in the city that her silks were a better bargain than plain hemp and linen. Few people now bothered to learn how to spin flax. They resigned themselves to wearing expensive cloth, and as the custom settled, didn’t grumble about it anymore.
The servants were very surprised to see what the younger queen could do. The cloth she made was so fine and smooth no one would have believed it came from humble stinging plants. Young girls came to watch her work, and soon you could see them with spindles of their own, gathering nettles by the roads and leaving them in pools to ret. In a year, some of them wore their own skirts, made of clumsy, plain material, and paraded with pride through the castle. The queen mother was less than pleased with this. But her son was so taken with his wife that she said nothing.
After a while, however, she heard disquieting reports. People grumbled when it came to buying her overpriced fabrics, and pointed out that they could get nettles for free. She stormed into her daughter-in-law’s room, but all her yelling got her was a shrug and apologetic smile. When she tried to toss the spindle out of the window, however, the young woman stood up. She wrestled the spindle from her grasp with unnatural strength, grabbed her by the arm and threw her out, banging the door shut behind her.
That was the last straw. The queen began complaining to her son.
‘Have you never had the sense to wonder where that woman came from? And how come she never speaks?’
‘She cannot, Mother,’ her son said.
‘Cannot speak? She doesn’t even grunt! And this spinning, all day, when she should be taking care of her household? My son, you’ve brought a witch into my home!’
‘Nonsense, Mother. What harm has she done?’
The queen soon realised that there was nothing to gain this way. But she had another plan.
Soon, people in her pay were roaming through villages and towns, talking about the young queen, and how strange it was that she never spoke, and her obsession with nettles. They talked and talked, until some started to agree. Wasn’t it unnatural, that a woman should have survived alone in the forest, without the help of her fellow man? And she didn’t even care for fine silks! It’s all well and good for people to disdain luxury, but wasn’t she rubbing it in the faces of honest folks who might have liked to live in a castle like she did? One person said the word ‘witch’, then two, then three. The queen mother heard the reports, and finally relaxed. Soon she would be rid of this young upstart who was hurting her business with her homemade nettle cloth.
Halfway through the seventh and final year, heralds announced through the streets that the young queen was pregnant. Her husband was overjoyed, and his wife, as usual, only smiled, happiness overflowing from her eyes. Months went past. She rode through exhaustion and nausea without a complaint, and kept spinning. When time came to deliver her baby, she had made enough cloth for a seventh shirt. Anxiety and joy battled in her heart. This was a dangerous time for a woman; what if she never got to save her brothers? She clung to that thought, scary as it was, because it was still less scary than the one looming beneath—what if my life ends here, and I’ve spent it in silence, meaningless as an ant’s?
But when the time to give birth came, the midwives only marvelled at her strength and bravery, when she delivered her baby without a single sound of pain. A lovely girl, as healthy as she hoped. She blinked through tears, then smiled as hard as she could, so she would not inadvertently start sobbing and break her vow. Her husband cried his soul out. Beside him, his mother watched and offered tight-lipped congratulations.
And then fate tipped the scales once more. The midwifes left, and told everyone that the young queen had not once cried in pain, not even cooed when her daughter was born. There was not a doubt left. How could anyone but a witch behave so unnaturally? As she sewed the last shirt together, the young queen heard shouts below her walls. She was still spent from the birth and did not think of leaving. That was how, when the queen mother opened the gates to let the mob in, she was trapped in her bedroom, with no one to defend her but her husband, who was pushed aside by rebellious guards.
She only had time to gather all six shirts, and the unfinished seventh one. She didn’t resist when they dragged her out, until they threw up on top of a pyre, to the shouts of ‘Witch!’ She crawled down, was pushed up again. Not now, she thought. Not so close. And then it occurred to her that there was a way out. She could plead for her life, explain everything. Her brothers would be lost. But she would be saved, and live happily with her husband and daughter.
She screwed her mouth shut and did not say a word.
But when the flames touched the pyre, a wind rose from the horizon, and the silhouettes of seven great swans flew down towards the castle. Stumbling and coughing, the young queen stood up on the pyre and threw the shirts, one by one, into the wind. They caught the wings of the swans as they swooped down. But no swan landed on the ground. Instead, seven young men stumbled to their feet, naked save for a plain shirt of nettle cloth. The youngest one still had a tuft of feathers on his shoulder, where the seam had remained unfinished to the last.
What happened afterwards is a longer story, but makes a shorter tale. The young queen welcomed her brothers with shrieks of joy, confusing everyone and moving some to tears, which was all they needed to change their colours and douse the pyre. The mob left after a moment of embarrassment. The young queen and her brothers ran into the palace where they kissed and hugged everyone, propriety be damned, and then there was a long, unpleasant explanation between the queen and the queen mother. No banishment ensued, only a heavy fine (which the dowager was more than wealthy enough to pay), which was set aside to fund a school for young girls. The brothers feasted in the palace for a while, then asked their sister to build them a little house near the forest, where they could carry on with the life they had led for twenty years. The young queen kept spinning nettles and carrying firewood, and taught her daughter to do the same, along with other girls from the surroundings. She even taught her husband, because he was a good, brave man who knew that there was no greater wealth than what comes out of an honest worker’s hands.
And everyone lived happily ever after.