"Go right to the source and ask the horse / He'll give you an answer that you'll endorse . . ."

The Copper Horse
by Laura Beasley ©2014

She unwound the tight braid. She hated how the Old Weaver had twisted her hair. She was free and her hair should be free. After finishing, she reached forward to untwist the braids on the mane of the copper horse. She would unplait the tail when they stopped for lunch. Thinking about food made her hungry. The whalebone corset restricted her breathing. She was afraid to halt and hop off because she didn't know how to walk. For sixteen years she had been The Princess who could not touch the ground.

The king and queen had wanted a daughter. Some couples desire a healthy child of either sex but her parents insisted on a girl child. They tried for a dozen years until the copper-haired storyteller entered the courtyard carrying a speckled hen.

She called to the queen watching birds from her balcony window, "Your majesty, pay me and I will grant your secret wish."

The queen threw a bag of copper coins.

She tossed the coins in the manure next to the stable, "Your wish is worth more than filthy pennies, your majesty."

The queen threw silver coins.

The woman tossed them in the muddy trough, "Your child will cry more tears than the weight of these coins because of your disrespect."

The woman picked up her hen to leave and refused to examine the third bag of coins. The queen sent her servant to invite the storyteller to tea. The storyteller refused. The servant returned to the queen who insisted they invite the woman for a meal. The storyteller accepted gold coins at dinner. She fed the coins to her hen.

"You will have a daughter, your majesty. Don't let her feet touch the ground for more than a dozen years."

The queen hired a dozen strong nursemaids to carry the princess. The girl hated not being allowed to crawl or walk. She resisted their efforts to dress her in princess clothes or brush her hair. She wore filthy rags and had tangled hair. When the girl was sixteen years of age, the king insisted she be married. The queen knew their daughter would disgust rich noblemen.

She implored her daughter to cooperate, "You are older and we've indulged you long enough. We must fix your hair and dress you like a princess."

"If I cannot walk, I will not look like a princess." The girl said.

The queen remembered the Old Weaver who could distract with stories. The princess was mesmerized by tales for twelve hours. She barely noticed being bathed and corseted and dressed. Her hair was brushed and combed. The Old Weaver was plaiting the last strands of hair as they sat on the balcony. The princess began to cry and her tears dripped over the edge in the manure. As darkness fell, the Old Weaver could not see what was happening with the tears and continued weaving tales. The sharp eyes of the princess watched in the shadows as the mud and muck transformed into a copper horse with braided mane and tail. The princess planned her escape.

When the castle was asleep, the princess pulled back her covers. She filled a pillowcase with bread and cheese. She twisted her feet to touch the ground and braced herself to stand for the first time. She collapsed on the floor. She crawled to the balcony where she fell onto the back of the copper mare. They rode off in the moonlight through the night and the next morning. It was midday when the princess freed her hair and the horse's mane.

They rode until the horse spoke, "I thought you were going to remove my tail braids when we stopped. When will we stop? Not that you need to eat, fat princess whose feet never touch the ground."

"Mother never told me I was fat, only my hair was scraggly and my clothes ragged. Who made you a princess expert?" said the princess.

"I've told stories to dozens of royal brats. If we stop at the next pond so I can drink, I'll tell you a tale after I've eaten all of the bread and cheese."

"That leaves nothing for me. I didn't think horses ate bread and cheese."

"I'm not an ordinary horse, am I?"

"You remind me of someone." said the princess.

After she'd eaten her fill, the copper horse began, "There was once an old storyteller with copper hair who offered to help a queen who wanted a daughter."

The Princess interrupted, "This is the story of my birth and I've heard it dozens of times. Twelve different versions told by twelve different nursemaids. What I want to know is why the hen ate the coins."

The horse continued, "The storyteller gave the hen to a poor family. The old couple had one child. When they died, the boy had only the hen. The hen laid one egg each day. Enough to keep him alive. When the hen was too old to lay eggs, the boy went to market. Two men offered him ducat.

An old man warned him, 'Don't sell to those wizards. They know about the gold coins inside the hen.'

"The boy took the hen home and split its head finding the gold coins. He was disappointed and said, 'I wish my hen were alive and could speak.' She came back to life as a young talking hen."

"I know about foreshadowing." Said the plump princess. "The boy marries a trampy girl but ends up with the hen. She is an enchanted princess."

"You think you know the end of that story. You have heard too many stories." Said the horse.

The horse never told another story. The princess lost weight because she ate fruit and nuts she picked from the trees as they rode through the forests of the world. She did not try to walk. The further they traveled, the fewer villages and homes they encountered. They came to a place with trees in every direction.

The horse told her, "I am tired of carrying you. You need to walk at my side."

The princess slid off and fell to her knees. She pulled herself up and gripping the horse's mane learned to walk suffering cuts and bruises. With tattered clothes and scraggly hair, she felt like herself again.

After twelve years of wandering, they came to a cottage in the woods. The horse told the girl to wash and clean herself, to braid her hair and wear the beautiful dress. The princess was ready to be clean and alone. The horse left after telling her she would not be alone forever.

Far away on the next day, the hen told the boy it was time to travel. He left the gold coins with the hen. She gave him a magic feather to fly through the sky. He found the cottage in the woods empty and dusty. The boy washed the sheets and beat the rug. He swept and cleaned the cottage. He made a pot of vegetable soup and put fresh flowers on the table. The princess joined him in the evening.

She had many questions. "For whom did you make this bed?"

He told her, "For myself but if you are tired, you can sleep in the bed and I will sleep on the couch."

"For whom did you lay this table?"

"For myself, but you can sit at it with me."

"For whom did you make this meal?"

"For myself, but you can share it with me."

She sat at the table smiling at him. The princess was ready to be with him. Ready to walk touching the ground into their future.

x x x

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