Once upon a time, before you were born, in a kingdom too far to reach by foot or boat or pony, there lived a maiden who was quite unhappy. Like other ladies of other kingdoms in stories you’ve read, her mother died when she was young and her father had remarried. Her stepmother was, as expected, beautiful, cold and cruel. The maiden was subjected to all sorts of humiliations — raggedy clothes, sad food in the attic, snide remarks and the lot. So, it was no great surprise or tragedy when the stepmother abandoned her in the middle of a dark wood.
Unsure what to do next, the maiden made her way through the wood by the light of a slim moon. She had rough feet like a gypsy, but was otherwise young and lovely. Some time into her excursion, a wolf appeared and offered her help. But he had a lean and hungry look, so she declined. Time to time, other creatures appeared with promises of food or fire or comfort if she would only follow, but their eyes or teeth or claws glittered fiercely in the moonlight. She just thanked them and picked up her pace.
When dawn finally broke, she reached the edge of the wood where there was a clearing of soft green grass and bright daffodils. On the far side of this meadow she could make out a dirt road and a small cottage in poor repair. Beyond that were rolling green hills, on one of which perched a fantastic castle.
The maiden found that the cottage, like herself, had been abandoned. Around the sad structure gay wildflowers grew and bees buzzed and a little goldcrest splashed in a birdbath that had collected rainwater.
As the maiden regarded her reflection in the birdbath, the goldcrest warbled. Then, remarkably, the bird’s song transformed into speech. “Please,” entreated the bird. “Please, my lady...”
He flew to her finger so his tiny black eyes could meet hers. “I am not a bird…,” he began and recounted a long story of his enchantment by a foul witch. Indubitably, the curse was intended to teach him a lesson about patience or humility or some other such virtue — the only thing that could lift it was one thousand and one lemon seeds.
“As you see,” the bird prattled on, “I am smaller than a wren and my bill too fine for pruning lemons…” He was handsome for a bird, with a sunny yellow crest lined in black and regal green-gold wings. “If you could only collect one thousand and one lemon seeds for me, I would turn back into my true form.”
His little wing gestured to the hillside beyond. “You would have my gratitude… and be my princess.”
The goldcrest blinked hopefully. The maiden, who wanted to be wanted, tied back her hair and said, “Let’s get to work.”
Now, to the left of the cottage was one large lemon tree. The maiden started her task by picking every lemon she could reach. The branches were quite thorny and the blossoms home to many bees. Her fair hands became rife with scratches and stings. But, instead of stopping, she fashioned a ladder with wood from the lean-to and collected more lemons from the highest branches.
She then found a well behind the cottage and fixed its broken rope. And though the rope burned her palms, she drew up pail after pail of cool water until a nearby trough was clean and full.
After that, she found tools and pried apart the broken cottage porch. She used the old wood to construct a market stand. Though the splinters bit into her hands and the hammer was heavy, she worked until the structure was sturdily done.
The pile of lemons lay shining in the sun and still she worked.
She followed the bees from the tree to their hive. With cautiousness and quiet delight, she removed several fat combs of honey. Of course, she was stung some more.
Back in the cottage, the maiden found faded curtains that she used for a stand awning, as well as a crate of jelly jars that she washed up and set to dry in the sun.
The goldcrest watched all this with curiosity, waiting for his lemon seeds.
Finally, the maiden began to score the lemons’ peels. She halved each one with her bare hands, which had become strong from her labors. The juice stung each scratch and bite but she did not stop. The seeds were scattered among the peels and pith and pulp, but she did not yet collect nor count them.
Instead, the maiden mixed the lemon juice with the cool well water and the warm honey. She filled the jars with the golden liquid and set them in neat rows along the stand. No sooner had she set out the last jar than a traveler came along the road. For a glass of lemonade, he gave her two gold sovereigns. An unlikely number of travelers came by foot and horseback and donkey-cart, each paying generously for lemonade with sovereigns and crowns.
The bird, impatient, warbled, “Now, can you count the lemon seeds?”
The maiden smiled, looking lovelier than ever. Indeed, her hair had become more golden in the sun, her skin bronze, her arms powerful and posture proud and regal.
She sat near the lemon rinds and began to count the seeds. Carefully, she lined them in rows, counting until she reached one thousand.
“Just one more!” the bird exclaimed. “Just one!”
“No,” said the maiden.
The goldcrest fluttered its wings in anger and confusion, black eyes glittering.
“I have enough seeds to plant an orchard,” she said. “I have a home here and good health and confidence in the skill of my own hands… What use could I have for a prince?”
The bird seemed smaller than ever as he flew away over the hills. The lady sat under the lemon tree and took her rest at last.
Listen to The Lady and the Lemon Tree on The Story Coterie podcast.