A Patchwork Fairy Tale: the one with the river, the debt, and the sick child.
A woman helps a weakened river sprite and finds that this sprite now considers herself indebted to her until she has repaid the saving of her life.
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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. If you want to read as well as listen you can find a transcript and mp3 download on patchworkfairytales.wordpress.com. You found one of my Patchwork Fairy Tales. This is the one with the river, the debt, and the sick child.
The River Sprite
There once was a woman who lived in a small town. She had lived there all her life and almost her whole family lived there too. Almost, because recently the woman’s eldest brother had moved with his family to a neighbouring town. Of course the new house took a lot of work to get in order and because his sister was a very accomplished craftswoman she set out early one morning to walk to her brother’s new house to help out. On her way she passed a couple of cheerful lads that were building a dam in a stretch of river.
“Good morning, lads!” she called out.
“Good morning, Miss!” they called back.
“What is going on here?” she asked, stopping to talk to them.
“We are draining this arm of the river,” one of them explained. “It is coming too close to the town and we cannot risk a flooding.
The woman nodded, bid them good luck and walked on. She followed the arm of the river they were draining and it ended in a little pool.
“This will run dry without the river,” the woman said. “But other pools will form elsewhere and take its place.”
She knelt where the last clear water still flowed into the pool and filled her flask. Then she resumed her walk and did not stop until she reached her brother’s house.
All day long she, her brother and his wife were busy painting walls, building shelves, and minding the children. At the end of a long, but cheerful day, all she wanted was to go home, but her brother was worried about her walking back in the dark.
“Don’t be silly,” she laughed. “I may be smaller than you, but mind that I’m twice as strong! Just lend me a lantern and I shall be just fine.”
So her brother lit a lantern for her and holding it out to light her way the woman set off for home.
In de dark everything looks very different than during the day and the woman did not realise she had reached the little pool she had filled her bottle in this morning until she was right beside it. Evidently the working lads had finished their dam, because the pool was almost dry.
“A good day’s work for me and them,” the woman said to herself, but suddenly she heard a sound that made her stop dead in her tracks. Someone was gasping for air, struggling to breathe.
“Hello?” the woman called out, holding out her lantern to spread the light.
At first she saw nothing, but then the light of her lantern fell on a figure that was lying on the muddy bank of the drained pool.
“Goodness!” the woman cried. “Hello there! Are you hurt?”
The figure, covered in mud and looking miserably thin, lifted their head and spoke in a weak, but contemptuous voice:
“Do not speak to me mortal! I am not like you. I am she who dwells in the deep! Do not presume because we share the layout of our limbs that I am of your kind.”
“Forgive me for addressing you improperly,” the woman said sincerely, not in the least taken aback by the harsh tone. “But if you have a hand like mine, let me offer you my own!”
“I do not want your hand,” the figure spat.
“You are hurt,” the woman insisted. “Let me help you.”
“Water,” the figure cried. “They have taken my water…”
“I have water for you here,” the woman said.
She put down her lantern, kneeled beside the sobbing creature and gave her to drink from her flask.
“This is my water!” the creature gulped and she drank greedily.
“It is the water from this pool,” the woman said. “If you are not human, are you a creature of the river?”
“Your people call my kind the water sprites and if you had not met me on a moonless night and without my water you would fear me!”
The woman could tell the sprite was too weak to do much more than lift her head and she pitied her.
“I am sorry, that the people of my town drained your pool,” she said. “Please let me help you, let me carry you back to the river.”
The sprite did not answer and her eyes were full of suspicion and disbelief, but the woman could tell she would surely die if nothing was done. Carefully she took the sprite in her arms and got to her feet. She could not carry her and the lantern at the same time so she left the lantern behind, following the dry river until she reached the newly built dam. The sprite heard the rushing water and squirmed in her arms.
“Let me go!” she begged. “In my water I will be strong again!”
With some effort, because the sprite had suddenly grown very heavy, the woman kneeled on the river bank and carefully lowered her into the water. As soon as the sprite’s body touched the water it changed. Her skin glistened, her limbs grew stronger and she moved away from the woman and into the water with ease. It was too dark for the woman to see clearly, but she heard the splashing of the water and a relieved sigh. Then there was only silence. The woman had no way of knowing for sure that the sprite would be alright, but somehow she felt assured that she would be.
Tired, but satisfied, she found her way back along the riverbank, to the place where her brother’s lantern still shone patiently. She took it up again and went home.
Standing in her lamp lit kitchen it seemed almost too strange to believe she had met an actual water sprite. But the mud on her clothes was proof of her labour and the woman went to bed, quietly wishing that the river would soon fill a new pool to replace the loss of the old one.
Days passed and the woman rejoiced whenever rain fell heavily from the sky. The rain would swell the river and help the water find its way anew after the human interference. The other townspeople were glad too, but because of opposite reasons. With all this rain the river might well flow outside her borders so they were glad they had begun diverting her stream away from the town in time.
A fortnight passed, its last days slipping by almost unnoticed and on the night that the moon rose full and round, the river did indeed leave her borders. The woman could not sleep that night. The moonlight shone straight through her curtains and made her so restless she got up and walked to her window. Moonlight fell gently down on her and in the quiet of the night the woman was almost convinced that she could hear the roaring of the swollen river all the way from here.
“The water must be raging,” she muttered. “For me to hear it here.”
Quietly she left her bedroom and went to open her front door. As she stepped outside, barefoot and clad in her nightgown, the moon seemed to shine even brighter. And in that silver light, that nearly made the night as bright as day, a figure sat on the garden gate. The woman looked at it in wonder. This looked nothing like the creature she had saved from the dried up river bed, but she knew she was the very same water sprite.
“Goodnight, water sprite,” she said with a bow.
“Goodnight, mortal,” the sprite nodded. Her hair glistened dark in the moonlight and her skin was smooth and shimmery.
“You look well,” the woman smiled. “I’m glad.”
“Tonight the moon is strong,” the sprite replied. “And I left my waters voluntarily.”
“Why have you left them?” the woman asked curiously, walking towards her. The dew on the grass was cold on her feet, but she did not mind it.
The sprite regarded her solemnly and said slowly: “You saved my life. I owe a great debt to you and I must repay it. I cannot live my life in the debt of a human!”
“But my help was freely given!” the woman protested. “If my neighbours had not diverted your river you would not have had any need of it. You have no debt to me and if you feel one I hereby release you from it.”
The sprite listened to her, but shook her head. “A debt cannot be dispelled,” she said. “It can only be repaid. You must tell me how I can repay it.”
“Is that what you have come for?” the woman asked unhappily. “But I do not wish to be paid for simple kindness and decency.”
“I must repay my debt,” the sprite insisted. “And I will stay until you have thought of something I can give you by way of payment.”
“What would you give me then to be free of debt?” the woman relented. There was nothing she wanted. Nothing she could think to ask of the sprite.
“I cannot name the price for my own debt,” the sprite said indignantly. “You must name it yourself. Whatever you want you can ask for, my powers are at your disposal, human.”
The woman could tell that the sprite would not rest until she had repaid her debt. It was clearly very important to her and she wanted to oblige, but she really couldn’t think of anything to ask for. She had no wishes beyond the everyday and ordinary. Not a single great lacking in her life.
The sprite eyed the woman urgently and in an effort to clear her mind she looked away, studying the horizon beyond the town. The moon shone so brightly that night, that the woman felt like she could see all the world set in silver.
“Will you tell me of your kind and your life?” she asked, looking at the sprite.
“That is hardly anything to ask,” she replied.
“But it is the only thing I know to ask for right now,” the woman replied. “And I would so love hear.”
“A story will not pay my debt,” the sprite said gravely.
“What could ever be equal to the worth of a life,” the woman mused with a shake of her head.
The sprite could not answer that and for a long time she watched the moon drenched landscape in silence. “I will tell you a story,” she said finally. “While you think of something new.”
So the sprite talked and the woman listened and then the woman asked and the sprite answered and then the sprite asked and the woman talked and so they talked the whole night through. It was easy, talking like this, and the woman realised she had not said enough or heard enough by far when the sprite told her reluctantly:
“The moon is leaving us.” She shook her dark head. “I have to go, but I have not repaid my debt.”
“I’m sorry,” the woman said and it was not quite clear what she was sorry for, the unpaid debt or the sprite leaving while there was still so much to talk about.
The sprite laughed softly. “I will return on the next moon,” she said. “Surely you will have thought of something by then.”
“I will do my best,” the woman said and she waved goodbye as the sprite disappeared into the darkness.
That morning the woman was so tired from lack of sleep that she nearly fell asleep at her mother’s coffee table.
“What’s the matter with you, my dear?” her mother laughed.
“I stayed up talking to a friend last night,” her daughter said apologetically. “We forgot the time.”
“Well,” her mother smiled. “Mind you don’t make a habit out of it, or you’ll tire yourself right out!”
The woman nodded, but when the next full moon came she had quite forgotten about sleep and rest.
“Good evening!” she sang cheerfully at the sprite.
“Good evening,” the sprite smiled. “Have you thought of a request?”
“Yes I have!” the woman said happily. “Because you taught me so much about the world I never knew. I want to learn to speak your language!”
“I speak the language of the water,” the sprite said. “Not of the whole world.”
“But will you teach me?” the woman asked eagerly. “You speak my language. If you hadn’t I never would have been able to speak to you! Isn’t it a wonderful thing, to know someone’s language.”
The sprite slanted her head. “Who ever heard of a sprite teaching a human,” she tutted.
“Who ever heard of a human befriending a sprite,” the woman retorted.
This made the sprite smile again. “I can try to teach you,” she said. “But it would still not repay my debt…”
“Then will you start teaching me until I think of something that will?” the woman said. “Please?”
“Very well,” the sprite laughed.
And so the sprite taught the woman the language of the water. She taught her the murmuring and the sloshing, the splashing and the babbling, until the she could tell her friend the stories of her life without having to translate them. And the woman studied so hard that after a long string of full moons had passed them by, she understood enough to burst out laughing at one of her friends untranslatable jokes.
The sprite beamed with pride and the woman hugged herself to stop her sides shaking quite so badly.
“Thank you,” she sighed, when she had finally caught her breath.
“For what?” the sprite asked.
“For everything you’ve done for me.”
“But I have done very little in particular,” the sprite pointed out.
“You have made me laugh,” the woman contradicted gratefully.
“And I’m glad of it,” the sprite said. “But one laugh does not pay my debt. You often laugh.”
This was the first time in a long time that the sprite had mentioned the debt again. It made the woman sober to think the sprite was only here to repay her, but she said:
“A laugh is worth a lot. Today I did not laugh once,” the woman said seriously. “And this day is almost gone. So you gave me my first and only laugh of the day.”
“Your eyes are laughing still,” the sprite said pleasantly.
“Still because of you,” the woman said, smiling wider.
The sprite laughed softly herself and she argued no longer.
“I am sorry I have not yet thought of a way for you to repay your debt,” the woman said after a short silence. “If you are still determined that there is a debt.”
“There is,” the sprite said. “And I must repay it.”
“Then I shall think of a bigger favour the next time I see you,” the woman said solemnly. “I promise.”
The sprite nodded and after a moment she said: “I am sorry you did not laugh today before now.”
“Some days are like that,” the woman replied serenely.
“Some days are,” the sprite agreed and until the moon set, she told her friend her favourite story all over again.
If the water sprite had not really expected the woman to have a new request for her the following full moon, she was mistaken. Her friend was waiting for her on the garden gate with shining eyes and no sooner had she greeted her or she burst forth:
“I have thought of what I want! What I want most of all, is for you to be there when we celebrate my sister’s wedding!” Because all these pasts months had been busy with preparations, but now at the next full moon the wedding party would be. And it had occurred to the woman that this would mean she would have to miss her friend’s visit, and this made her far too sad.
The spirit was very surprised and suddenly shy. “A dance will not pay my debt,” she protested.
“But it will be such fun!” the woman pleaded. “And everyone important will be there to share it with us all, so I would miss you terribly if you weren’t. Please come!”
The water sprite’s shimmery cheeks were warm with happiness to hear that and she relented.
“Very well, I will come.”
And the woman’s face lit up in such a way that the world seemed brighter all of a sudden.
Now the joyful anticipation for the wedding was complete. The woman spent all her spare time helping her family getting everything in order and she looked forward to dancing with all her friends, especially the water sprite.
The day of the wedding, when she was getting ready, she wondered if she should have offered her friend to borrow festive clothes of hers. Usually the sprite was clad in nothing but the billowing curtain of her own hair. Still, she was sure she would have asked if she needed something. For a moment she did wonder if her friend would come looking like she always did.
“As long as she’s there I do not care either way!” the woman proclaimed loudly to the morning sky and she set off to her sister’s house.
It was a beautiful wedding. Tears were shed and smiles were spread all around. The woman enjoyed herself immensely, but she still kept an eye on the sun, wishing for it to sink faster into the west.
At sundown the lanterns were lit and the music began. The bride and groom opened the dancing and the woman was watching them lovingly when she felt someone sit down beside her. She looked and saw the water sprite. Her hair had been tied back and she was draped in cloth that seemed to have been woven with threads spun from water on a loom set with moonbeams.
“You came!” the woman cried and she hugged the sprite tight.
“I promised I would,” the sprite laughed, returning her embrace.
Before she could reply, her mother suddenly came towards her and she greeted the sprite with the warmest of smiles.
“So you’re the one that’s been keeping my daughter up nights!” she laughed. “Nice to finally match a face to the smile on my daughter’s!”
The water sprite was suddenly shy again. She had not expected everyone to be so friendly. But after the third smiling family member approached them, the woman had the joy of hearing the sprite introduce herself as her friend without any further hesitation.
They danced the darling night away and when the moon was almost setting the woman hugged the sprite goodbye with a million thanks.
As the sprite waved goodbye the woman did wonder, what she would ever do if the debt was fulfilled and she would have to miss her. Because it was true, she had not wished for anything in her life, but her life was such a great deal better now even so.
Still, all the blessings of life cannot ward off its sorrows.
As the moon waned, the woman’s family was suddenly gripped with fear as one of their youngest members suddenly fell ill. The woman cried her fear when she saw her baby cousin so ill, but there seemed to be nothing that could help. Because she knew how to lay floors and build walls, everything to make a sturdy home. But no home was sturdy enough to keep out all illness, and she did not know how to cure this. All she could think to do was stay close, do whatever she was asked, and sing the poor ailing child every song she had ever learned.
At length she ran out of songs to sing and she turned to the songs of the water the sprite had taught her.
If her family was surprised to hear the murmur of water spilling from her lips, they didn’t say so, perhaps they were too tired and grieving to notice.
The kind woman saw the sorrow all around her and when her cousin wept on her shoulder for the fourth time, she could bear it no longer. Because she remembered the stories about the power of the water and she thought that maybe, just maybe, something could be done.
“My friend…” she whispered. “The friend that came to dance at the wedding, the friend that taught me these songs…they might be able to help.”
The parents looked up at her, their tired faces strained with desperation.
“How?” the mother begged.
“Come with me to the river,” the woman said.
“The river?” the father asked, but his wife was already wrapping up the baby.
“My friend…” the woman stammered. “She’s…”
“I don’t need to know,” the mother said. “Just ask her to help my baby!’
Close together all three of them hurried through the darkness towards the river. The woman was thankful that her cousins asked no questions, because she would not have known what to answer them. She had no idea if the water sprite would be able to help, but if there was even the smallest chance…
They arrived at the river and without hesitating a moment the woman cried out in the language of the water:
“Please! My friend! Are you there? I need you help!”
The sounds of the rushing river mingled with her voice, making it sound like nothing but water could be heard. The woman did not even know if her friend could hear her, did not even know if she would show herself now the full moon wasn’t here to make her strong.
But the river wasn’t drowning out the woman’s voice, it carried her cry on its waves, all the way to the water sprite. She came up to the surface immediately, gazing up at the woman in surprise.
“You are crying,” the sprite said in dismay. “What is wrong?”
“My cousin,” the woman gulped. “I have brought my cousin and her husband, their baby is ill…”
The sprite was startled when she saw the two other humans standing behind her. The husband and wife were staring at her, but the fear on their faces was not meant for her. The sprite glanced at the bundle the mother carried in her arms.
“Look,” the woman pleaded and she took the child from its mother and held it out to the sprite. “The doctors have done everything they could, but nothing helps…”
The sprite rose up from the water a little more, but she didn’t reply.
“Please,” the woman said with chocked voice. “Save my little cousin. I beg of you, can you?”
The sprite looked with large eyes at the little baby’s feeble frame. “I…” she stammered.
“Please!” the woman begged. “It is all I ask and all I’ll ever ask! If I saved your life, then save his!”
The sprite looked from the woman’s face to the scared parents standing back. Hesitantly she reached out, still looking at the parents.
“May I hold the child?” she asked.
“Yes,” the mother whispered, grasping her husband’s hand and he nodded silently.
Trying not to shake too much the woman laid the baby in the water sprite’s arms. He lay very still. The sprite looked down on him with her large eyes. The three humans almost held their breath when the sprite started singing. It sounded like the murmur of a distant brook and the parents of the ailing child could not understand it. The woman could however. Even if she did not always understand the individual words she understood what it was about. The sprite was singing of the eternal water of the world. Of the sea that washes endlessly and patiently against the shores until they move. Of the river that flows continuously, taking with it whatever touches its waves and shaping the country around it. Of the mountain brook that cuts a path through rock and stone with determination alone. Of the rain that showers down on all it can reach, leaving the world clean and fresh.
As the sprite sang she herself seemed to be simply a part of the water. Her arms, still holding the baby, seemed to be water. Water that was washing the child.
The woman watched with tears in her eyes as she saw the water grow murky. It didn’t seem to hurt the sprite however. Dark clots of sickness were being washed out of the baby and carried off by the water until the water ran clear and the baby suddenly took a deep quivering breath.
It’s high infant wail pierced the night and his parents burst into tears at this first definite proof of life they had heard in a long time.
The baby’s tears mingled with the sprite’s water and she smiled.
“He will be fine,” she said and the sprite stepped out of the water and onto the river bank, holding the child out to his parents.
The parents rushed forward, blessings and thanks spilling incoherently from their lips. They wrapped their arms around their baby and each other and cried. The woman cried too, wiping her eyes over and over again and kissing her little cousin, who looked healthier than he had ever done before.
The sprite listened to their happiness and relief and watched them for a while. Never had she seen so much humanity up close. She looked at her friend and the woman turned away from her family to take hold of the sprites’ damp hands.
“Thank you,” she panted, her tear stained face shining with relief. “Oh if this does not pay your debt a thousand times over!”
The sprite didn’t answer, but the woman did not wait for an answer. She almost started crying again and she gave relief to her feelings by wrapping her arms around the sprite and hugging her close. Silently the sprite held her in their arms, and let her silently sob her relief.
There was such joy to be had when they returned to their family with the baby all better, and the woman held on to the sprite’s hand tightly all the way. In the noise and business of happy tears and congratulations, between being hugged by her uncle and kissed by her mother, she lost her though. And when she turned around, the woman didn’t see the sprite anywhere.
That morning very early, when the woman finally collapsed into her bed, she wondered if she would ever see the sprite again. After all, she had repaid her debt.
When the full moon came again, however, she went outside to wait by the garden gate all the same. And to her joy, to her wild and dancing joy, she heard the familiar wet footsteps on the grass.
“Oh!” the woman cried. “You came back.”
She rushed into the sprites arms and the sprite hugged her close.
“But what have you returned for?” the woman asked, with happy tears in her eyes. “You paid your debt.”
“Perhaps…” the sprite said slowly. “But, I missed my friend.”
The woman laughed through her tears and clasped the sprite’s wet hands.
“You never had a debt to me,” the woman said. “Not one that I ever felt. But if I could ask one more thing of you. Stay with me? Once a month is very meagre rationings when it comes to seeing the dearest companion I’ve ever had.”
And the sprite smiled so wide that the rain was warm as it fell to the ground for at least three days after.
So it was that the sprite who could not bear to live in debt of a human, came to live with a human for the rest of her days. The woman left her house in town and moved into an old water mill that stood by the side of the river. There the sprite could be with her without being away from her waters.
They were content, they were happy. And no matter how she looked at it, the sprite was confident she did not live in debt. After all, a life for a life was a fair exchange. And now the two of them could share theirs.
So there was no more talk of debt. There was only singing like the murmuring waters, talking nights away by the shine of the moon, and watching the woman’s family grow around them from the comfort of their shared home full of quiet joy. And that is a great deal of happiness.
Laura: And with that last word stitching up the very last sentence, this story has its proper end.
Thank you so much for listening, lovely of you to stop by. You can follow this podcast on podcatchers like Spotify, iTunes, or Stitcher, where new episodes will be available for 90 days, but you can always find all my fairy tales on the website patchworkfairytales.wordpress.com, where you can also contact me and find out about my other projects like my book and webcomic. You can also find me at laurasimonsdaughter.tumblr.com which is full of folklore and urban fantasy, or you can follow @patchworktale on twitter.
There’s another tale to tell some other Wednesday but until then…
Listen to the orchard trees, check your tears for pearls, and be safe~
Copyright Laura Simons, please do not copy my stories without my permission, lest you insult the fae.