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Authors: John Gardner

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Gudgekin the Thistle Girl

BOOK: Gudgekin the Thistle Girl
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Gudgekin the Thistle Girl and Other Tales

John Gardner
Illustrations by Michael Sporn

Contents

Gudgekin the Thistle Girl

The Griffin and the Wise Old Philosopher

The Shape-Shifters of Shorm

The Sea Gulls

Gudgekin
the Thistle Girl

I
n a certain kingdom there lived a poor little thistle girl. What thistle girls did for a living—that is, what people did with thistles—is no longer known, but whatever the reason that people gathered thistles, she was one of those who did it. All day long, from well before sunrise until long after sunset, she wandered the countryside gathering thistles, pricking her fingers to the bone, piling the thistles into her enormous thistle sack and carrying them back to her stepmother. It was a bitter life, but she always made the best of it and never felt the least bit sorry for herself, only for the miseries of others. The girl's name was Gudgekin.

Alas! The stepmother was never satisfied. She was arrogant and fiercely competitive, and when she laid out her thistles in her market stall, she would rather be dead than suffer the humiliation of seeing that some other stall had more thistles than she had. No one ever did, but the fear preyed on her, and no matter how many sacks of thistles poor Gudgekin gathered, there were never enough to give the stepmother comfort. “You don't earn your keep,” the stepmother would say, crossing her arms and closing them together like scissors. “If you don't bring more thistles tomorrow, it's away you must go to the Children's Home and good riddance!”

Poor Gudgekin. Every day she brought more than yesterday, but every night the same. “If you don't bring more thistles tomorrow, it's away to the Home with you.” She worked feverishly, frantically, smiling through her tears, seizing the thistles by whichever end came first, but never to her stepmother's satisfaction. Thus she lived out her miserable childhood, blinded by burning tears and pink with thistle pricks, but viewing her existence in the best light possible. As she grew older she grew more and more beautiful, partly because she was always smiling and refused to pout, whatever the provocation; and soon she was as lovely as any princess.

One day her bad luck changed to good. As she was jerking a thistle from between two rocks, a small voice cried, “Stop! You're murdering my children!”

“I beg your pardon?” said the thistle girl. When she bent down she saw a beautiful little fairy in a long white and silver dress, hastily removing her children from their cradle, which was resting in the very thistle that Gudgekin had been pulling.

“Oh,” said Gudgekin in great distress.

The fairy said nothing at first, hurrying back and forth, carrying her children to the safety of the nearest rock. But then at last the fairy looked up and saw that Gudgekin was crying. “Well,” she said. “What's this?”

“I'm sorry,” said Gudgekin. “I always cry. It's because of the misery of others, primarily. I'm used to it.”

“Primarily?” said the fairy and put her hands on her hips.

“Well,” sniffled Gudgekin, “to tell the truth, I do sometimes imagine I'm not as happy as I might be. It's shameful, I know. Everyone's miserable, and it's wrong of me to whimper.”

“Everyone?” said the fairy, “—miserable? Sooner or later an opinion like that will make a fool of you!”

“Well, I really don't know,” said Gudgekin, somewhat confused. “I've seen very little of the world, I'm afraid.”

“I see,” said the fairy thoughtfully, lips pursed. “Well, that's a pity, but it's easily fixed. Since you've spared my children and taken pity on my lot, I think I should do you a good turn.”

She struck the rock three times with a tiny golden straw, and instantly all the thistles for miles around began moving as if by their own volition toward the thistle girl's sack. It was the kingdom of fairies, and the beautiful fairy with whom Gudgekin had made friends was none other than the fairies' queen. Soon the fairies had gathered all the thistles for a mile around, and had filled the sack that Gudgekin had brought, and had also filled forty-three more, which they'd fashioned on the spot out of gossamer.

“Now,” said the queen, “it's time that you saw the world.”

Immediately the fairies set to work all together and built a beautiful chariot as light as the wind, all transparent gossamer woven like fine thread. The chariot was so light that it needed no horses but flew along over the ground by itself, except when it was anchored with a stone. Next they made the thistle girl a gown of woven gossamer so lovely that not even the queen of the kingdom had anything to rival it; indeed, no one anywhere in the world had such a gown or has ever had, even to this day. For Gudgekin's head the fairies fashioned a flowing veil as light and silvery as the lightest, most silvery of clouds, and they sprinkled both the veil and the gown with dew so they glittered as if with costly jewels.

Then, to a tinny little trumpeting noise, the queen of the fairies stepped into the chariot and graciously held out her tiny hand to the thistle girl.

No sooner was Gudgekin seated beside the queen than the chariot lifted into the air lightly, like a swift little boat, and skimmed the tops of the fields and flew away to the capital.

When they came to the city, little Gudgekin could scarcely believe her eyes. But there was no time to look at the curious shops or watch the happy promenading of the wealthy. They were going to the palace, the fairy queen said, and soon the chariot had arrived there.

It was the day of the kingdom's royal ball, and the chariot was just in time. “I'll wait here,” said the kindly queen of the fairies. “You run along and enjoy yourself, my dear.”

Happy Gudgekin! Everyone was awed by her lovely gown and veil; and even the fact that the fairies had neglected to make shoes for her feet, since they themselves wore none, turned out to be to Gudgekin's advantage. Barefoot dancing immediately became all the rage at court, and people who'd been wearing fine shoes for years slipped over to the window and slyly tossed them out, not to be outdone by a stranger. The thistle girl danced with the prince himself, and he was charmed more than words can tell. His smile seemed all openness and innocence, yet Gudgekin had a feeling he was watching her like a hawk. He had a reputation throughout the nine kingdoms for subtlety and shrewdness.

When it was time to take the thistle sacks back to her cruel stepmother, Gudgekin slipped out, unnoticed by anyone, and away she rode in the chariot.

“Well, how was it?” asked the queen of the fairies happily.

“Wonderful! Wonderful!” Gudgekin replied. “Except I couldn't help but notice how gloomy people were, despite their merry chatter. How sadly they frown when they look into their mirrors, fixing their make-up. Some of them frown because their feet hurt, I suppose; some of them perhaps because they're jealous of someone; and some of them perhaps because they've lost their youthful beauty. I could have wept for them!”

The queen of the fairies frowned pensively. “You're a good-hearted child, that's clear,” she said, and fell silent.

They reached the field, and the thistle girl, assisted by a thousand fairies, carried her forty-four sacks to her wicked stepmother. The stepmother was amazed to see so many thistle sacks, especially since some of them seemed to be coming to the door all by themselves. Nevertheless, she said—for her fear of humiliation so drove her that she was never satisfied—“A paltry forty-four, Gudgekin! If you don't bring more thistles tomorrow, it's away to the Home with you!”

Little Gudgekin bowed humbly, sighed with resignation, forced to her lips a happy smile, ate her bread crusts, and climbed up the ladder to her bed of straw.

The next morning when she got to the field, she found eighty-eight thistle sacks stuffed full and waiting. The gossamer chariot was standing at anchor, and the gossamer gown and veil were laid out on a rock, gleaming in the sun.

“Today,” said the queen of the fairies, “we're going on a hunt.”

They stepped into the chariot and flew off light as moonbeams to the royal park, and there, sure enough, were huntsmen waiting, and huntswomen beside them, all dressed in black riding-pants and riding-skirts and bright red jackets. The fairies made the thistle girl a gossamer horse that would sail wherever the wind might blow, and the people all said she was the most beautiful maiden in the kingdom, possibly an elf queen. Then the French horns and bugles blew, and the huntsmen were off. Light as a feather went the thistle girl, and the prince was so entranced he was beside himself, though he watched her, for all that, with what seemed to her a crafty smile. All too soon came the time to carry the thistle sacks home, and the thistle girl slipped from the crowd, unnoticed, and rode her light horse beside the chariot where the queen of the fairies sat beaming like a mother.

“Well,” called the queen of the fairies, “how was it?”

“Wonderful!” cried Gudgekin, “it was truly wonderful! I noticed one thing, though. It's terrible for the fox!”

The queen of the fairies thought about it. “Blood sports,” she said thoughtfully, and nodded. After that, all the rest of the way home, she spoke not a word.

When the thistle girl arrived at her stepmother's house, her stepmother threw up her arms in amazement at sight of those eighty-eight thistle-filled sacks. Nonetheless, she said as sternly as possible, “Eighty-eight! Why not a hundred? If you don't bring in more sacks tomorrow, it's the Home for you for sure!”

Gudgekin sighed, ate her dry crusts, forced a smile to her lips, and climbed the ladder.

The next day was a Sunday, but Gudgekin the thistle girl had to work just the same, for her stepmother's evil disposition knew no bounds. When she got to the field, there stood two times eighty-eight thistle sacks, stuffed to the tops and waiting. “
That
ought to fix her,” said the queen of the fairies merrily. “Jump into your dress.”

“Where are we going?” asked Gudgekin, as happy as could be.

BOOK: Gudgekin the Thistle Girl
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