There once was a king who had a beautiful wife, and many other beautiful things besides. He was gentle in peace and terrible in war. Every country he found, he conquered, and every country he conquered he plundered, because he was a man who knew the value of things. And he brought gifts on the backs of serving-men to his beautiful wife, and he had them spilled at her beautiful feet, until the floor of their castle shone almost as brilliantly as her golden hair. And she clapped her hands in delight to see what he had brought her.
She had no equal in beauty in any of the lands he visited, so he knew the value of her.
Then it happened that the queen was struck ill, and in her heart she knew that she was going to die. She was sick and sad in turns, and turned her face to the wall, and pushed away comfort, and she called for the king her husband.
“If I die,” she told him, “you must remarry, for we have no sons, but I ask that as a favor to me you do not wed any woman who is not as beautiful as I was, not unless her hair is as golden and brilliant as mine.” In doing this the queen hoped the king would never remarry, and that she would never be replaced in his heart. Better the floor of the throne-room lie empty than strewn with gifts for a plainer woman.
So the king agreed to the promise. Shortly after this the queen died, and so they put her away in the ground, where the dirt closed over her like a mouth and kept her brilliant hair for itself.
For a long time the king could not be led away from grief, and he would hear nothing about taking another wife. But there is no man so sad that he cannot be talked out of forgetting a woman, and his councillors had light and time and forgetfulness on their side.
“You must have a queen,” they told him, and he felt all the better for letting himself be persuaded.
So the king sent out messengers to all the lands he had conquered to find himself a bride from one of them, whose beauty matched that of the queen-in-the-dirt. But the king himself had traveled to these lands before, and he had not found her equal there then. She was not to be found now.
Now the king and queen had had a daughter, and it so happened that the hair on her head was golden also. And the king had not looked at her while he had a wife living, but he looked at her now.
The king’s daughter had lately come of age, and she had unbound her hair. And as she tried on one of the dresses her mother had left to her, her body and her beauty betrayed her, for the king saw that she looked like her mother in every way, and he was seized with a great desire for her.
Desire seized the king, and then the king seized his daughter, and so everyone was snatched up in turn. And his daughter cried out in confusion, for she did not know what her body had done to her.
Then the king strode into the hall, dragging his daughter behind him, and he said to his councillors, “Here is the woman I will make my queen, who is the equal of my dead wife. Her likeness I cannot find elsewhere, and no one else will content me.” And his daughter wept, but her tears did not detract from her beauty, so nobody minded.
When the councillors heard this they were horrified, and said, “This cannot be.” But there is no man so horrified he cannot be talked out of it, and the king persuaded them to be led away from their scruples. There was only one king, after all, and the king needed a son. And if the king was willing, that was consent enough for both of them.
The daughter’s heart shrank inside her when she saw no one would oppose the king’s decision. She ran to the kitchen and seized a knife from a scullery-maid and began to saw away at her golden hair. When she had finished, her scalp was glistening and patchy and covered in blood.
The king was not dissuaded. Conquerors never are. “It will grow back all the more beautiful,” he assured her, and he ordered all knives out of the castle.
And the princess grew frantic when she could not erase her own beauty, and she tore at her face with her fingernails. She tore out her eyelashes all in a row so her eyelids were red and skinless. She carved a hole in her cheek large enough for her pinky finger to fit through. She reached for her own skull.
But this only made her father the more tender. And as he grew more tender, he also grew more determined. “Have my daughter the princess’ hands bound in velvet and in silk,” he told her servants, “that she may not harm herself again.”
And the princess wandered the halls with muted hands and watchful attendants, and her hair began to grow back, and the king declared that the time had come for them to set a date for their wedding.
The princess had learned guile when the opportunity for force had been lost. “Before I marry you, great king,” she said to him, “I must have three dresses: one as golden as the sun, one as silver as the moon, and one that glistens like the stars. Further, I must have a cloak put together from a thousand kinds of pelts and fur. Every animal in your kingdom must contribute a piece of its skin for it.”
Now she thought, “That will be entirely impossible for him, and perhaps in the meantime I can find another bride for him.”
But the king did not give in, and the most skilled maidens in his kingdom had to weave the three dresses, one as golden as the sun, one as silver as the moon, and one that glistened like the stars. And his huntsmen had to capture all the animals in his entire kingdom and take a piece of skin from each one. From these a cloak of a thousand kinds of fur was made.
Finally, when everything was finished, the king had the cloak brought to him. Spreading it out, he said, “Tomorrow is our wedding day.”
When the king’s daughter saw that she had lost all hope of changing her father’s mind, she rearranged her face entirely and embraced him smiling. “I have made up my mind to be a wife to you,” she told him, and everyone rejoiced at her obedience.
“I thank you for your promise,” he said, and kissed her solemnly on the forehead. “Rest well, and marry me in the morning.”
That night, while everyone else was asleep, the princess got up and took her three dresses and placed them in the smallest traveling-case she could find. She put on the cloak of furs and darkened her hair as best she could and covered her face and hands in dirt until she looked as much like a peasant-woman as a king’s daughter could hope. Then she left her father the king’s house.
She walked toward what she hoped was the border of her father’s kingdom, until she came to the edge of a great forest. Being tired, she sat down in a hollow tree and fell asleep.
The sun came up, and she continued to sleep, and she was still asleep by broad daylight. Now it came to pass that the king who owned these woods was hunting in them. When his dogs approached the tree they sniffed then ran around it barking.
The king said to the huntsmen. “See what kind of wild animal is hiding there.”
The huntsmen followed his command, and when they returned they said, “A strange animal, like none we have ever seen before, is lying in the hollow tree. There are a thousand kinds of fur on its skin. It is just lying there asleep.”
The king said, “See if you can capture it alive, then tie it onto the cart and bring it along.”
When the huntsmen took hold of the girl, she awoke. Filled with fear, she cried out, “I am a poor child who has been abandoned by her father and mother. Have pity on me and take me with you.”
Then they said, “Thousandfurs, you are good for the kitchen. Come with us. You can sweep up the ashes.”
Thus they set her on the cart and drove her home to the royal castle. There they showed her a little cubbyhole under the stairs, where the light of day never entered, and said, “This is where you can live and sleep,” and she rejoiced in it. She never wanted to be seen again.
Then she was sent to the kitchen, where she carried wood and water, tended the fire, plucked the poultry, sorted vegetables, swept up the ashes, and did all the dirty work, and she did it with a smile that no one saw. No one looked at her, and she grew all the more beautiful under her filthy disguise for it.
Now it happened that one day a feast was held in the castle, and Thousandfurs said to the cook her mistress, “May I go upstairs and look at all the guests through the window? I will only be a little while.”
And the cook gave her leave for half an hour. So the princess took her oil lamp and went to her room, where she took off her fur cloak and washed the ashes and dirt from herself, and unbound her hair for the first time since she had cut it. Then she opened her traveling-case and took out her dress that glistened like the sun. And after she had done all this she went upstairs to the banquet. Everyone stepped out of her way, for no one knew her, and everyone thought that she was a princess.
The king approached her, reached his hand out to her, and danced with her, and thought in his heart, “My eyes have never before seen such beauty.”
When the dance had ended, she curtsied, and while the king was looking around, she disappeared, and no one knew where she had gone. The guards who stood watch in front of the castle were called and questioned, but no one had seen her.
Now she had run back to her room, quickly taken off her dress, dirtied her hands and face, put on her cloak, and was once again Thousandfurs. She was not yet ready to be seen all the time.
After she had returned to the kitchen and was about to set to work and sweep up the ashes, the cook said, “That’s enough until tomorrow. Make the king’s supper for me, so I can have a look upstairs as well.”
Then the cook went away, and Thousandfurs made soup for the king. While she was making it, the golden ring she had worn on her finger for the dance slipped into the dish and sank to the bottom of the bowl, and she did not notice it.
When the dance was over, the king had his soup brought to him. He ate it, and it tasted so good to him, that he thought he had never eaten a better soup. But when he reached the bottom of the bowl, he saw a golden ring lying there, and he could not imagine how it had gotten there.
He ordered the cook to come before him. The cook was terrified when she heard this order, and when the king asked who had cooked the soup, she answered, “I cooked it,” for she did not want Thousandfurs to be punished.
The king said, “That is not true, for it was made in a different way, and much better than usual.”
The cook answered, “I must confess that it was the little Thousandfurs, who sweeps in the kitchen.”
The king said, “Go and have her come up here.”
When Thousandfurs arrived, the king asked her, “Who are you?”
“I am a poor child who no longer has a father or a mother.” (It is true, she told herself, because the king wishes to be my bridegroom and has relinquished his duties as a father.)
He asked further, “What are you doing in my castle?”
She answered, “I sweep and I peel the vegetables.”
He asked further, “Where did you get the ring that was in the soup?”
She answered, “I do not know anything about the ring.”
Thus the king could learn nothing, and he had to send her away again.
Some time later there was another feast, and Thousandfurs, as before, asked the cook for permission to have a look. She answered, “Yes, but come back in a half hour and cook the soup for the king that he likes so much.”
She ran to her room, quickly washed herself then took from the case the dress that was as silver as the moon and put it on. Then she went upstairs and looked like a princess. The king came up to her and was delighted to see her again, and because a dance was just beginning, they danced together. But as soon as the dance was over she again disappeared so quickly that the king did not notice where she went.
When the king gave a banquet for the third time, everything happened as before. But this time she put on the dress that glistened like the stars, and thus clothed she stepped into the hall. The king danced again with the beautiful maiden, thinking that she had never been so beautiful. And while he was dancing he placed the golden ring back on her finger, without her noticing it. Further, he had ordered that this dance should last a long time. When it was over, he tried to keep hold of her by her hands, but she tore herself loose and jumped so quickly into the crowd that she disappeared before his eyes. She ran as fast as she could to her room beneath the steps, but because she had stayed away too long, more than a half hour, she could not take off the beautiful dress, but instead just threw the fur cloak on over it.
Thousandfurs ran to the kitchen to make the soup for the king. But the king had followed her and took a hold of her gently by the hand, and held up the finger that bore the ring he had given her. As Thousandfurs struggled to free herself, her fur cloak opened a little, and the dress of stars peeked out. The king grabbed the cloak and tore it off.
The princess was no longer able to hide her beautiful hair. And after she had wiped the soot and ashes from her face, she was more beautiful than anyone who had ever been seen on earth. But this time she was not afraid to be seen.
The king said, “You are my dear bride, and we shall never part.”
Preparations for the wedding were begun at once, and the kings of all the surrounding countries were invited. From all the corners of the world they came and descended on the court in great numbers.
But neither the king of the country himself nor the many visiting kings appeared in such splendor as the bride’s father, who now recognized his daughter, whom he had not forgotten. He had been searching for her now for many months, and when he explained the situation to the king of the new country, Thousandfurs was given back to her father, because kings owe more to other kings than they do to women.
“You should have told me you belonged to someone else,” he said to her. And Thousandfurs said nothing.
And the king of the far country was sad, for he had loved Thousandfurs, but he soon allowed himself to be persuaded out of his sadness, and married another.
And Thousandfurs was returned to her kingdom and her father and her promise. And the kingdom rejoiced at her obedience.
[Image by Gustave Doré]
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.