Straw

What other option had she beyond marrying herself off so that some other man could run her life?


The miller’s daughter did not like the miller, but he was her father and she felt she had little choice in the matter. What other option had she beyond marrying herself off so that some other man could run her life?

Baking the bread, while her brothers helped their father grind grain, the miller’s daughter avoided the lot of them and drew some joy from making things people liked to buy and finding friends in her customers. Brown arms and cheeks dusted with flour, she’d find ways to transform the miller’s work into new treats to supplement their simple loaves.

Her baking drew more customers and coin than the mill often did, she was keen and knew how to turn a profit. The money she made the mill was another wall to keep her father away. At the tavern, grousing and jealous of this child who had never liked him, the miller mocked his daughter’s skills.

“She thinks she can turn bread into gold, though spices and nonsense.” His laugh turned to a cough of lungs dusty with flour. “If she could, she’d try to spin the straw into gold as well.” He went on in this vein longer than his sons stayed drinking by his side, longer than his cup was refilled. Two travelling noblemen, slumming and sluggish with excess, filled his cup for him and stored away his grumbling for charming anecdotes to turn in court.

Testing the jokes on noblewomen, they received only faint laughs. Supposing the joke was too complex, the noblemen tuned it, turned it, shaping the miller’s muttered words into a better barb. Some part of their joke reached the king, but it must not have been turned quite right as he demanded to see this girl who could spin straw into gold.

This was terribly awkward for the noblemen, they weren’t quite sure which manor they’d been stopped at when they listened to the miller talk to his cups. But they gathered themselves and retraced their steps, finding the manor, the mill and the miller after only a short tour of the taverns they’d recently visited.

To simplify things, they bypassed the miller entirely and talked to the daughter. Commanded her, really, to come with them, to the king, who wanted to see her skills. Thinking of her baking and proud of herself, the miller’s daughter joined them with not a look back.

Learning, too late, what she would be asked to do, the miller’s daughter firmed her square jaw and followed the noblemen to the king, to the room of straw he’d prepared for her. As the door locked, she sat on a bale, looking at hands that were rough from a life of heat and water and had never learned to spin.

Resigned as a stone to her fate if she failed, the miller’s daughter reacted not at all when an imp sidled up and whispered that he could do her task. He held out his hands, nimble fingers ready to dance across the spindle. Without a word, the miller’s daughter dropped into his palm the necklace she’d bought herself after the first year of the bakery’s success. Watching the imp go to work, she curled up on her bale and slept.

The miller’s daughter was relieved to wake up and find cones of spun gold stacked neatly near the door. Though she didn’t know what to expect when the king and his guards came to see her, she was not surprised to find herself ushered into a new room, with more straw, the lock clicking solidly behind her.

This time she waited less patiently, her toe daring to tap the seconds until the imp appeared again. Her ring, her mother’s ring, was already in her hand. It was snatched away and she watched the imp a bit longer this time before curling up to sleep.

When the king came the next morning to see the gold and the girl, he looked in her eyes for the first time. He made whispered promises that she nodded at but didn’t hear, her ears already echoing the click of the lock behind her.

The new room was as full of straw as the first two combined. As she waited for the imp, the miller’s daughter thought about what she had, what she could offer. She remembered the king whispering to her and when the imp arrived, she promised him the king’s firstborn. And the imp accepted.

The miller’s daughter watched the imp spin for hours, keeping him company with the chatter she’d learned selling bread. Only as dawn drew near did her eyes grow heavy and her body relax in rest.

Much later, after his breakfast, the king arrived without guards, unlocking her door himself. The miller’s daughter held one of the spun gold spools heavy in her arms and spoke her first words to the king.

“This is all I want.”

With a shrug, the king stepped aside and the miller’s daughter left the room, left the castle, left the king and his wife and their world.

Based on Rumplestiltskin, collected by the Grimm brothers. The original is an Aarne-Thompson type 500.