The Story of the Handless Maiden
(Adapted from a version found in ‘The Orchard’ by Drusilla Modjeska)
Once upon a time a maiden was sweeping under the old apple tree at the back of her fathers house when the devil came knocking at the front door. The girl’s father opened the door and the wily devil offered him great riches, in exchange for all that lay behind his house. Thinking there was only an apple tree out there, the girl’s father thought he had nothing to lose and eagerly made the bargain. As you can imagine when he discovered what he had done and told his wife and daughter there was a major family crisis!
When the devil appeared to collect the girl, instinctively she drew a circle of chalk around herself to protect herself. The devil could not prise her from the magical substance rising white through the ground. In desperation he ordered her father to chop off her hands so she would lose strength and he could win her from the chalk. The father wept, the mother wept, the daughter wept but what other choice was there, a bargain was a bargain. So the father took his axe and chopped off her hands. The girl wept and wept more and more and her tears fell on her wounds protecting them – protecting her – so still the devil could not prise her from her circle of chalk.
At last when the devil went away and it seemed like he’d given up, the girls father promised that in recompense he’d keep her safe in finery and comfort for the rest of her life. The maiden however, prompted by the spirit of chalk and tears knew that such a life would be sterile and that instead she must leave her father house and take her chances in the wilderness.
This she did, as the injured do, accompanied only by the spirit that walked beside her – perhaps a part of herself she had not yet learnt to recognise.
One day tired, and hungry after many months of wandering, the maiden came upon palace surrounded by a wondrous garden, in the middle of which was an orchard laden with fruit. As she stood gazing at the trees the moat around them parted and she entered the orchard. Pears trees bent their boughs at her approach so that she could take the fruit between her stumps and eat them.
The next night, the king, having discovered that his pears were being eaten, kept watch to see who was stealing them. When he saw the maiden he fell in love. He fell in love with her handless helplessness, which, as much as the glowing spirit who stood beside her, made her beautiful to him. In his adoration he promised to take care of her for the rest of his life and he married her.
Once she was installed in his palace he arranged for a pair of beautiful hands, an exact fit, to be manufactured for her from the finest silver. She lived a happy wifely life with hands that, all things considered, worked remarkably well. It might almost have been happy ever after, but………
In every story there a point of instability and in this tail he king was called away to war. He left his wife with her silver hands and a belly ready to deliver their first child. When the chid was born the king’s mother sent a message to the king. The devil, still sore that he had lost the maiden, saw his chance to get her, so he distorted the information in the message in such a way that the king understood that his wife has sunk to a heinous level. The young queens’ life was endangered, so she fled into the forest with her child.
For many years the outcast queen wandered through the forest with her daughter and her spirit for company. During those years of solitude, bit by bit, day by day, her hands grew slowly back; first as buds, then as little girl’s hands, then finally as women’s hands. And as they did, the spirit moved from outside to within her and shone from her eyes.
Meanwhile the king returned to the palace and discovered the cruel mistake. He set off, weeping and distraught, into the woods to find his beloved. When he eventually found her, he did not recognise her. Clinging to the symbols of literality he could not recognise her without her silver hands. It was only when the woodsman, in whose house she was staying, fetched them from a trunk and showed them to him as proof that he understood.
There was great rejoicing when the queen and king returned to the palace. A hundred guests were invited to a splendid ceremony and a hundred guests, bearing glorious gifts, were told the story of the young queen’s hands that grew back during those years in the forest. A hundred guests heard the story and went back into the world where they each told a hundred guests of their own. As you will do now that I have told you.