A Fix-it Fairy Tale: more kindness, more consent and more inclusivity for ‘Prunella’.
A flower-loving youth accidentally picks a lilac from a witch’s garden and ends up having to face some very unnerving trials, but also the witch’s beautiful daughter…
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[Gentle theme music]
Laura: Hi, you can call me Laura, I’m here to tell you a story if you like. This is Patchwork Fairy Tales and you found one of my fix-it fairy tales: more kindness, more consent and more inclusivity. If you want to read as well as listen, check out the AO3 link in the description or go to patchworkfairytales.wordpress.com. Today we’re fixing Prunella.
The Stolen Lilac
There once was a couple who had only one child. Everyone that knew the child called them Lilac and they were hardly ever seen without a bloom of the same name tucked into their buttonhole. Whether it was the name that had come first or the love of the flower, nobody could remember, but as long as the lilacs bloomed, Lilac would be wearing one.
This was all very well in spring and summer, but whenever autumn came and chased the flowers off, Lilac grew terribly gloomy. It happened every time the seasons turned and their parents despaired at their melancholy. They had hoped the years would make it pass, but while Lilac grew older and stronger and wiser, they never grew less sorry to see the flowers wilt.
Even when they were no longer a child and had grown into a fine, strong-willed youth, they were still sick at heart every autumn when they had to bid the sunshine and the blooms goodbye.
One red-skied autumn evening, when Lilac was wandering the country lanes, mourning for the loss of the green leaves and the sweet blossoms, they turned into a path they had never gone before. It wound round and round and just when Lilac thought they had better turn back the way they came for fear of getting lost, all thoughts were abruptly wiped from their head by a sweet smell that was dearer to them than any other. There, in an overgrown hedgerow, a lilac bush was in full bloom.
Lilac’s surprise was so great and their joy so wild that they did not hesitate even a moment. With one step they were off the path, with two steps they were at the hedgerow, and with a third step they had reached out towards the prettiest flower and picked it off its stem.
Blushing with contentment they carried the flower home and their joy seemed to light up the whole house. Their parents were all astonishment that there would be lilacs still in bloom, but they did not question it any further.
There was an answer, however, to the question they did not ask. The hedgerow Lilac had passed surrounded the gardens of a witch and she had spied, with eyes as keen as a bird of prey’s, how Lilac had walked off with one of her flowers.
She seethed with greed and indignation and the next time Lilac went out for a walk and wandered down the lonely path that went past the witch’s garden, she was waiting for them. Because of course Lilac returned for another flower. The first one had lasted very long, but at length it had wilted and Lilac couldn’t resist going to fetch a new one now they knew where this extraordinary bush grew.
No sooner had Lilac put out their hand, however, or the witch sprang from her hiding place and seized them by the arm.
“Thief!” she cried. “I knew you would come back again! Now you will pay for your misdeeds.”
Poor Lilac, grey-faced with fright, begged the witch to forgive them. “I meant no harm,” they pleaded. “I did not mean to steal from you! These flowers seemed to grow so wild, I did not know someone had planted them.”
They promised her that they would never to do it again, but the witch knew no mercy and would not hear them. She dragged Lilac through the bewildering wilderness of her overgrown garden, all the way to her house. There she locked them into a little servants’ room and told them they would never be able to find their way home, so they had better not try to run.
“Tomorrow I shall give you a task, so you can work off your debt,” the witch said slyly, but she had no intention of giving Lilac a fair chance to win their freedom.
The following day she gave the frightened youth a basket and said: “Take this basket, go to the well out in the courtyard, and bring it back to me filled to the brim with water. If you don’t, I will fill it with your blood instead.”
Silent with horror Lilac took the basket to the well and let it down into the water. No matter how carefully they drew it up, however, all the water streamed right out again.
“If I’m doomed to fail, I might as well run,” Lilac told themself grimly. They left the basket by the well, chose a direction that seemed as good as any, and ran.
But this was no ordinary garden. The trees grew in multiple places at once and even the grass underneath their feet was treacherous. Before they had even had the time to consider themself lost, Lilac found themself back at the well again.
With fear gripping their heart they tried again, but they had hardly begun before a thicket blocked their path and when they walked around it, there was the well.
Lilac turned on their heels and ran. They ran and ran and they did not turn or even lift their eyes from the path before them, no matter how tree branches swatted into their face and brambles pulled at their clothes. But while they watched the path, they did not watch their feet , and a moment later they tripped over a sudden stone.
With a smack Lilac fell to the ground and when they pushed themself up on trembling arms and raised their head, there they were, once again beside the well. They sank to their knees beside the empty basket and began to cry so bitterly that they had angry tears rolling out of their left eye and sad ones out of their right. In the midst of their crying, however, they suddenly heard a gentle voice at their side saying:
“Why are you crying, Lilac?”
Turning around with a start they beheld the most beautiful person they had ever seen. No beauty could soften the sting of their suspicion however.
“Who are you?” they asked. “And how do you know my name?”
“I am the witch’s daughter,” the beautiful stranger replied and she looked at them with almost anxious kindness in her eyes. “My name is Benedita and I did not know your name, but my mother called you the lilac thief.”
“Then you must also know why I am crying,” Lilac replied.
Benedita cast down her eyes. “Yes, I know that she is determined that you shall die, but I promise you I will not let her do it. If you wish it, I can help you fill that basket and she will not be allowed to punish you.”
“No,” said Lilac warily, a chill of dread settling in their chest. “I will not wish or ask anything of you. I will not be in the debt of another witch.”
Benedita’s face fell, but she nodded. “Very well,” she replied sadly. “I will fill it on my own accord.” And she dipped the basket into the well, willing the water to stay trapped between the woven reeds. She handed the dripping basket to Lilac, who took it with a silent look of wonder and carefully carried it into the house.
When the witch saw it, she became white with rage, and spat furiously: “You must have asked Benedita for help!”
But Lilac stared straight into her eyes and spoke defiantly: “I did no such thing.”
“Well, we shall see how you will do on your next task,” the witch hissed in a rage. She shut Lilac up in their room again and there they waited, silently fearing what tomorrow would bring and wondering why the witch’s daughter had helped them.
The following day the witch came to Lilac’s little room with a heavy burlap sack. “Take this sack of wheat,” she ordered. “I am going out and by the time I return, I expect you to have made it into bread. If you have not done so, I will bake it from the flour of your bones.” Having said this she left the little house, closing and locking the front door behind her.
Poor Lilac did not know what to do. It was impossible for them to grind the wheat, prepare the dough, and bake the bread, all in the short time that the witch would be away. The oven in the kitchen was not even lit yet. At first they set to work bravely, lighting the fire and grinding the wheat, but it was truly a hopeless task. The heavy millstone would barely move over its stone slab and the kernels of wheat jumped every which way. Lilac tried until their arms gave out and then they slumped over the millstone and wept with misery.
Once again they were roused from their despair by Benedita’s gentle voice at their side, begging earnestly: “Lilac, Lilac, do not weep like that. I can make the bread for you, if you wish it, and you will be safe from my mother’s threats.”
Lilac dried their tears, but shook their head. “I will not ask you for anything. I will not be in debt of a witch.”
Once again Benedita looked sorrowful, but she took the wheat from them and ground it all up in only a couple of grinds from the stone. Then she kneaded the dough, while Lilac tended the suddenly blazing the fire. Long before the witch would return the bread was risen and ready to be put in the oven.
“Now I must go,” Benedita said. “Because my mother mustn’t know I was here.”
Lilac watched her slip out of the kitchen door and sat down to mind the oven with a whole host of questions rattling in their mind. By the time the witch returned, however, they were waiting for her with a straight face and a freshly baked loaf of bread.
The witch looked from Lilac to the bread and back again and with fury in her voice she said: “You must have begged Benedita to help.”
But Lilac met her with a level stare, suddenly almost angry on Benedita’s behalf and answered once again: “I did no such thing.”
“We shall see how you will do on your next task,” spat the witch, and her eyes blazed with anger. She was certain that her daughter must have helped her prisoner somehow, so she thought of a danger that no help could protect them from. The next day she called Lilac into her sitting room and said:
“You must go to my brother, who lives on the other end of this valley. Tell him I have sent you to fetch the casket of wax that our father left to us.”
She said it oh so sweetly, but Lilac, who saw the malice in her eyes, was not fooled. Still, they were forced to set off across the valley all the same and the witch revelled in her scheme. Because she knew that her brother, who was as cruel and wicked a witch as herself, would never allow Lilac to return. This way she would be rid of them for good and Benedita would soon forget all about them.
The witch was mistaken in believing her daughter so callous, however. No sooner had they walked out of view of the little house, or she appeared beside Lilac, with her beautiful eyes all round with worry.
“Where are you going, Lilac?” she asked.
“I have been sent to your mother’s brother,” they replied gravely. “To fetch a casket with wax.”
“Oh no, no!” Benedita cried. “My uncle is more horrid a person than even my mother. You are being sent straight to your death! Please, let me help you and I can keep you safe.”
But no matter the fear wrapping around their throat, Lilac answered as before: “I will not ask you, for I will not be in debt of a witch.”
“Then you must let me help on my own accord,” said Benedita. “But I can only do this if you will listen to me and trust my advice.”
“I do trust your advice,” Lilac said quietly, because for all their wary caution, they did. Benedita had saved them twice before without getting anything in return and the concern in her eyes was as genuine as the light of the sun.
Benedita’s cheeks dimpled at that confession and she nodded. “Then I shall give you the instructions that my mother gave me, in case I should ever have to get into my uncle’s house. You must take this broom, this flask of oil and this round cake.” And from the impossible pockets of her dress she took forth each object as she mentioned it. “When you reach my uncle’s house, there will be a garden gate swinging back and forth in the wind. You must force it open with this broom, or it will slam shut on you. Then in the courtyard you will meet a feral dog. You must poor this oil onto his head so it runs into his eyes and nose, or he will seize you between his teeth. When you have escaped him you can sneak into the kitchen. There you will find a wailing servant. You must stuff this cake into his gaping mouth, or he will alert the whole house to your arrival.”
Lilac looked at Benedita in dismay.
“I know it is horrible,” she said soberly. “But it is the only way I know to get in and out of there alive.”
“What must I do next then?” Lilac asked.
“The casket of wax is in the kitchen, on top of a large cupboard. Take it as quickly as you can, and run back the way you came without looking back, or my uncle may catch you after all. I cannot go with you, because if my uncle is home he will know that I have come, but if you want I could wait for you here.”
Still Lilac would not ask, but they softly said: “You could.” And Benedita promised them that she would.
So Lilac took the broom, the flask, and the cake, and went on alone. When they looked back Benedita was standing there, skirts and hair flying in the wind, watching them go with her arms hugged close to her body. She looked more concerned than ever, but somehow instead of frightening Lilac, it made them more determined that they would come back safe and sound.
They took the exact path Benedita had told them to take, but when Lilac reached the garden gate swinging back and forth in the wind, their heart failed them. Because the gate creaked so terribly on its rusty hinges that every time it swung it sounded like a cry of misery that seemed to sing in completely harmony with the fearful sound of Lilac’s own heart.
Without stopping to reconsider, Lilac took up the flask and oiled the gate’s creaking hinges. Blessed silence filled the air and the gate, with one smooth swing, swung all the way open. Lilac, with their heart beating loud enough for two, could pass through unhindered. But now they were passing into the courtyard and when the growling guard dog came their way they had no oil left to pour.
Except Lilac did not think of the oil. They looked at the hound’s bloodshot eyes and starving frame and they tossed him the cake. Ravenous the animal fell upon it and as he ate, Lilac could walk right past him. Armed with only the broom they snuck up to the kitchen door, but they had not even opened it when they already heard the servant wail.
Lilac looked in through the grimy little windows and saw a figure with long, pale hair that was as matted as it was dirty. The servant was dragging his hair over the kitchen floor again and again, sweeping the flagstones with it and wailing with the hurt and the heaviness of it.
Shaking with dismay Lilac opened the kitchen door. The servant turned towards them, wailing mouth agape, but Lilac held out the broom for him to take. After a moment of astonished silence, he did, and Lilac was allowed to slip past him. There, on top of the tallest cupboard, stood a little casket. Lilac had to climb to get to it, but they reached it, snatched it, and ran.
As they ran out of the door, however, the witch spied them from the window. Rushing to the windowsill he screamed at his servant below:
“Servant! Grab and kill that thief coming from my kitchen!”
But the servant called back: “I will do no such thing. They have given me a broom, while you forced me to sweep the floors with my hair year after year.”
Lilac heard yelling, but they did not look back. They darted across the courtyard and as they did so the witch howled in blind fury to the dog below:
“Dog! Catch and kill that thief going through my courtyard!”
But the dog barked back: “I will do no such thing. They gave me a cake to eat, while you let me live near starving year after year.”
Still Lilac kept running, they were nearly at the gate, which still stood open wide.
The witch was so angry he almost chocked on his words, but he just managed to cry out: “Gate, slam shut and kill that thief running from my garden!”
But the gate answered: “I will do no such thing. They have oiled my hinges, while you let me squeak with rust year after year.”
And so Lilac escaped with nothing following them but the infuriated screams of the witch. They did not stop running until they had reached Benedita, but even before they had reached her she was crying out to them with eyes shining like stars.
“I saw everything!” she cheered. “Everything you did! Fool I was for thinking it had to be the way my mother told me!” She looked at Lilac with her whole face flushing pink. “I know no one as brave or as kind.”
Lilac did not know where to look. They clutched the casket to their chest and muttered: “I could not have done any of it without your help, even if I did not mind what you told me.”
But Benedita said she was glad that Lilac did not listen to her. The truth was that she had never met anyone she cared for as deeply as Lilac and though she would not say that, all her looks betrayed it.
The two young people walked back through the valley, going more slowly the closer they got to the witch’s house. Lilac watched Benedita from the corner of their eyes and saw how gradually all the joy drained from her lovely face. The witch’s house was already in view and at last Lilac could take it no longer.
“Benedita,” they said. “If you can do all that I have seen you do, do you not know a way to get us out of here?”
Benedita looked at them with startled, fearful eyes. “I do not know,” she confessed. “I know how to go so as not to get lost, but I have nowhere to go to. One cannot run away from here without a destination.”
Lilac looked up at Benedita and suddenly saw in her features all the sadness of a fellow prisoner. “Then you can share my destination,” they said earnestly. “I have a home to run to, if I only knew how. If you show me how, I will show you the where.”
“You would take a witch home with you?” Benedita stammered.
But Lilac had no second thoughts. “I would take you,” they said and the words sang on their lips.
Tears filled Benedita’s eyes and rolled across her cheeks like pearls. Lilac did not try to dry them, because they had not been given leave to do so, but Benedita dried them herself and said: “Tomorrow. Tomorrow when my mother has gone we shall run, but for now you must go home without me and give her the casket.”
“Where shall you be if I can’t find you?” Lilac asked, because suddenly to part from Benedita was worse than having to face the witch.
“My mother will only let me come home after you have been shut in your room,” Benedita confessed. “But I have been sleeping in the bedroom beside yours all the time you have been here. I will be able to hear you, should you knock on the wall.”
So they promised one another they would be leaving together on the morrow and Lilac went into the witch’s house alone with the casket tucked under their arm.
Only the witch’s anger could rival her surprise when she saw Lilac back again, safe and sound, and with the casket to present to her. Not only that, their cheeks were rosy and their eyes bright and full of defiance. “Did you meet my Benedita on the way?” she asked with gnashing teeth.
But Lilac met her gaze with a disdainful stare and kept their mouth shut.
“We shall see how you will do on your next task,” the witch growled and this time she resolved to take no chances. “You listen to me,” she said. “In my coop I keep three roosters. The first is yellow, the second is black, and the third is white. If one of them crows during the night you must tell me which one it is. If you get it wrong I will feed your wretched body to the two that did not crow and they can pick your bones clean.”
Now Lilac stood quaking in their boots, because they knew very well that they would not be able to tell which bird had crowed in the dark. And even though now they would not fear to ask Benedita for help, they would not get the chance to. When the witch locked them in their room, however, they immediately curled up in a corner and softly knocked upon the wall.
Knock, knock, knock.
There was no answer and for a while Lilac held their peace, but then once again, they knocked on the wall.
Knock, knock, knock.
So they sat, with their head and shoulder pressed against the wall and with their eyes staring a hole I the floorboards. Until, at last, when outside the silence of night had fallen over the world, there was an answer to their knock.
It was Benedita, who had finally repaired to her room and who had heard Lilac’s signal as soon as she entered. She gave them a gentle knock back, as if to say only ‘yes, I am here’, but as soon as she had, Lilac’s knocks sped up. They never grew louder but they became so incessant that soon Benedita could hear them hammer in time with the beating of her own frantic heart. They knocked and knocked and knocked until there was not even a pause for Benedita to answer in and she was overcome with such unrest and worry that she slipped out of her room and unlocked the door that her mother had shut Lilac up behind.
There she found Lilac looking grey-faced with worry. “We have to go now!” they whispered. “We cannot wait ‘til morning!” And they told Benedita what the witch had told hem would happen tonight.
Benedita’s rosy cheeks grew sickly pale with fright. “We will not have time to run,” she whispered. “The roosters will soon start crowing and as soon as my mother hears no answer she will discover that we have gone and hunt us down.”
Lilac frowned and wrung their hands. “Do you not know a way to deceive her?” they urged. “Is there no magic you can do that could help us?”
Slowly the colour returned to Benedita’s face. “There is something I could do,” she murmured. “But you would have to give me a lock of your hair.” Despite all that Lilac had said, she did not think Lilac could ever consent to that. Because to give a witch a strand of one’s hair was a terrible risk.
But Lilac, never hesitating, promptly took the little knife hanging from the ornate belt wrapped around Benedita’s waist and cut off a lock of hair, put it into Benedita’s hand and pressed her fingers warmly.
Benedita could scarcely speak, for her heart was swelling so it almost blocked her throat. Nevertheless she whispered: “Now you must cut some of my hair also.”
This pained Lilac much more than cutting their own hair had done. Very carefully they cut through one of Benedita’s curly locks and laid it beside their own in her hand.
Then Benedita took a little poppet from her pocket and gave it one little braid of her own hair and one little braid of Lilac’s. “There,” she whispered. “Now it shall hear with my ears, but speak with your voice, and fool my mother until we are far far away.”
She handed the poppet to Lilac, who placed it on the bed and with this done the two stole out of the room without another moment’s delay. On quiet feet they crept down the stairs and through the kitchen, neither of them daring to breathe for fear of being heard by the witch who was surely lying awake waiting for the roosters to crow.
Sure enough, they had only just opened the door when outside in the coop a rooster crowed in the dark.
“Thief!” the witch shouted. “Are you awake? Which one of my roosters cried in the night?”
Lilac grabbed Benedita’s hand and they both stood frozen in fear, for while Benedita knew very well that it had been the yellow rooster, neither of them could answer the witch without betraying where they were. But then, sure and steady, came Lilac’s voice from upstairs where the poppet answered:
“I am awake, witch! It was the yellow rooster that crowed.”
At this the witch got so angry that Lilac and Benedita felt the house shake with her fury as they snuck out the door. The witch’s garden was black as pitch in the night, but Benedita knew how to cross it and with Lilac holding her hand she also knew where to go. They went faster and faster, their feet stepping as two pairs of one until they were running past the well and into the treacherous trees.
Meanwhile, in the coop, another rooster crowed in the night.
“Thief!” the witch shouted again. “Are you awake? Which one of my roosters cried in the night?”
But while Lilac and Benedita ran, the little poppet sitting primly on the bed replied:
“I am awake, witch! It was the black rooster that crowed.”
Such fussing and fuming did the witch do then that all the windows of the cottage rattled. The noise was so terrible that Lilac and Benedita heard it even through the swishing of the wind in the leaves. But neither of them looked back or slowed down and with Benedita holding their hand, Lilac felt that their feet were sure of themselves.
They ran and they ran until there was the smell of lilacs filling the air and the promise of a familiar road hidden behind it, just as far off in the darkness, a third rooster crowed.
“Thief!” the witch thundered. “Are you awake? Which one of my roosters cried in the night?”
And just as Lilac scrambled underneath the lilac bush and dragged Benedita with them, the little poppet answered:
“I am awake, witch! It was the white rooster that crowed.”
“Then my wretch of a daughter must have told you so!” the witch shrieked and she stormed into Lilac’s room, determined to drag them out by their hair and feed them to all three roosters at once.
But when she tore the covers of the bed, she found it empty and in her violence she flung the little poppet high through the air, where it let out a single terrible shriek before the two braids of hair became untied from its head and it fell lifeless to the ground. The witch saw nothing of this, however, all she saw was an empty room while a bodiless voice screamed at her from the dark. Shrieking with disbelief and horror she ran to the room where her daughter slept and when she found this bed empty also, she let out a terrible cry.
“Oh wretched, wretched thief!” she howled. “My daughter did not help them after all. They have done it all themself and now they have stolen my daughter away!”
But no matter how she stamped and raged, the witch did not dare to pursue them. Because anyone, she thought, that was capable of fetching water in a basket, making wheat into bread in a morning, stealing from her brother, knowing her roosters by their cries, and disappearing from her own house with her daughter for a prisoner, would surely have to be a witch more powerful than she was herself.
So nothing and no one chased or hindered the young runaways as they went. Even so, Lilac did not let go of Benedita’s hand until they had ran all the way to the home they had been so homesick for. Their parents’ house stood steady and silent in the dark of the night, but at the first crunches of gravel under their boots light came flooding from the upstairs window.
“Oh, what will your parents say,” Benedita breathed.
Lilac only had time to give her a smile, but a moment later their mother and father came tumbling out of the house one after the other and answered the question for them.
“Lilac!” they cried. “Oh Lilac you’re back! Where have you been!”
And there were tears of relief and desperate hugs and then, when the first bewildering joy had settled, there were many curious looks. Benedita still stood beside Lilac, all loveliness and shy eyes and Lilac’s parents looked from her to them and back again.
“Who is this?” their father asked.
“Did you bring our Lilac back?” their mother asked with glistening eyes.
Benedita did not know what to say, but Lilac entwined their fingers with hers again and said:
“Yes she did.”
“I think it was Lilac who brought me,” Benedita contradicted, but Lilac’s father merely laughed and their mother said:
“Well then! You had better come in right away!”
So they did and as the front door closed behind them a whole new life opened up in front of them. With what joys that life was filled with and whether Lilac found enough consolation in the blooms on Benedita’s cheeks and the sunshine in her smile to soften the changing of the seasons, I really cannot tell you. Except the stars that shine down on everything and see all told me they lived in very great happiness, and they certainly ought to know.
Laura: And with that last word, stitching up the very last sentence, this story has its proper end.
I do hope you enjoyed my retelling of this slightly more obscure story! If you know any other fairy tales that could do with some fixing, please let me know! You can follow this podcast on podcatchers like Spotify, iTunes, or Stitcher, but for an mp3 download, transcripts, themed tags and summaries, you can check out patchworkfairytales.wordpress.com, where you can also contact me and find out about my other projects. Like my book Coffee and Faerie Cakes and my webcomic The Fisherman’s Favour. You can also find me on Tumblr and AO3, where I am laurasimonsdaughter, and support me on Kofi, where I am Laura Simons.
There’s another tale to tell some other day, but until then…
Be mindful of the flowers you pick, guard your name, and be safe~
Copyright Laura Simons, please do not copy my stories without my permission, lest you insult the fae.