Once upon a time, in a land where happiness and harmony had existed for so long that no one even knew what the word “war” or “weapon” meant, there was a queen and king who had seven daughters. At the Gifting Ceremony of each daughter the royal fairy Philippa bestowed upon them a magical skill that would fill them with complete joy. The eldest, Andromeda, was given the gift of wisdom, the second, Lyra, the gift of song. The third, Cassiopeia, was given the gift of knitting, and so forth, all the way down to the youngest.
But even with seven talented daughters, the queen and king felt something, or someone was missing from their perfect family. It wasn’t long before another baby was born, and finally they had a boy.
The royal couple named their new son Orion and his birth was celebrated throughout the land. On the day of his Gifting Ceremony, the infant was presented to Philippa the fairy. She placed one hand on the baby’s head and the other over his heart and closed her eyes, just as she had with each of his sisters. Then she waited for the images to pass through her mind that would tell her the gift that was best fit for the child.
With each sister the gift had come quite easily. For the fourth daughter, the image of a horse galloped across her mind. “Horsemanship!” she announced for the baby Venus. For Stella, the fifth, a picture of a compass and sextant surfaced. “Navigation!” she had said.
But as she held the boy, she felt uncertain. Surely, an object did come to her mind, but it was something she did not have a word for. It looked useful and vaguely familiar, perhaps even ancient. She doubted if she understood her vision properly, but since all eyes were on her she decided to come up with the word that best fit.
“Cutlery!” she announced.
There was a hesitation as everyone contemplated this unexpected response, but the king began to clap and soon everyone was applauding and cheering for the new baby boy whose talent would be chopping up vegetables.
And so, as soon as he was old enough to stand on a stool, Orion was thrust into the palace kitchens and given a knife. At first he cut bananas, then advanced to carrots, and then finally meat. It was clear to the royal chef that the boy did indeed have a gift for wielding a blade, and only after minimal guidance was able to cut up anything with speed, precision and finesse.
With Orion in the kitchen, the banquet table became a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach, with watermelons sculpted into fruit baskets, perfectly carved hams and steaming bowls of julienned carrots.
But Orion’s gift did not bring him the pleasure that his sisters felt when they were using their gifts. Luna, the sixth daughter, was gifted with dance, and the joy that she brought to those who watched her was only outmatched by the joy that was on her face as she performed. Nova, the youngest, possessed the gift of animal speech, and she could beckon any bird to perch on her finger. For Orion, dicing potatoes and mincing celery did not give him the challenge nor the joy that he craved. Though he tried to be creative, by carving out more interesting edible creations for each banquet, the task grew tiresome and eventually loathsome.
He soon refused to go to the kitchen. Instead he played for hours with sticks, stabbing pillows and smashing candelabras. He was louder than his sisters, more demanding, and more reckless. In short, he became a palace nuisance. The king and queen were at their wit’s end to figure out how to keep him under control. “Perhaps we should send him to a boarding school,” they whispered to one another in moments of desperation.
But Andromeda, the eldest daughter, observed her brother with wise eyes. She gathered her sisters together, all of whom had had it with their youngest sibling.
“He is annoying!” said Stella.
“And destructive. He destroys everything he comes in contact with.”
“I can’t concentrate on my knitting when he is present,” cried Cassiopeia.
“And whenever I try to sing, he mimics me by howling like a wolf,” said Lyra, folding her arms. “It is insulting.”
“Something is definitely wrong with him,” stated Luna.
Andromeda calmed them all. “No, sisters, I do not believe there is anything wrong with our brother. I think he is simply unchallenged. How would you feel if your gift was cutlery?”
Every head nodded in sympathy.
“I have an idea,” she said. “Let’s teach him our gifts.”
“He will never be as good at knitting as I am,” said Cassiopeia.
“I can’t even imagine him singing!” said Lyra.
“Or dancing!” added Luna with a laugh.
Then little Nova, who had been silent during the meeting, finally spoke. “He is good with animals,” she said timidly. “Or . . . at least, he tries to be.” Her sisters stared at her. “He is not afraid of them, and does not scare them away. I’ve taught him things. And I think I could teach him more.”
Not to be outdone by the youngest, the sisters grudgingly decided to give Andromeda’s suggestion a try.
Over the next few months Orion was passed from sister to sister, each girl teaching him her talent as long as she (and he) could possibly endure before handing him over to the next. At first, he squirmed, complained, and protested, but as he began to see progress in his new skills, he grew less restless and bored, and more interested in what his sisters had to teach him.
Andromeda shared with him book after book about philosophy, diplomacy, history and mathematics. Cassiopeia taught him to knit his own socks. Luna found him to be a teachable dancer with surprising fluidity and grace. Stella taught him to read the sun, moon and stars. Only Lyra met with defeat, for singing was the one skill that escaped Orion’s grasp.
He never could master the talents quite as well as his sisters, but he worked hard and improved. He did not find complete joy, but he did catch glimmers of it.
Then one day, when he was 17 years old, an unusual visitor arrived at the palace.
She called herself the Midnight Queen and she came from a faraway queendom. She was old, with long silvery hair and bright black eyes, and would have been quite beautiful if it weren’t for her pointed, yellow teeth. She rode in an ebony carriage, drawn by six coal-black horses. She had two other carriages behind her, one for her clothes, and one for her servants, all of whom had bright black eyes, just like her.
The king and queen graciously welcomed their guest and prepared the best chambers for her and her servants, and a great feast was arranged. After dinner, the king and queen desired to show the Midnight Queen their talented children. Each child performed their gifts, except Orion, who still refused to have anything to do with the kitchen, and declined to display what he had learned from his sisters, lest he be compared and deemed less worthy.
The queen’s black eyes glittered with delight as she observed the splendid talents of each sister. “You are so fortunate to have so many beautiful and talented daughters,” she said to the king and queen. “I would give anything to have even one daughter so gifted.”
“We also have a son,” said the queen with pride.
“Yes!” said the king. “Our boy Orion! He is just as talented. Have the chef bring some fruit and Orion will show you what he can do.”
A table was brought, with knives of all sizes and several large watermelons and a pumpkin, but Orion refused. After all of those talents, he was going to cut up fruits and vegetables? It was humiliating. He hid in the shadows and would not emerge, no matter how much his family coaxed, all of whom were more embarrassed at his lack of charm and graciousness than by his talent.
But the Midnight Queen didn’t care two beans for the son. “I am so grateful that your daughters shared their gifts with me,” she said, “that I would like to bestow a gift upon them.” She snapped her fingers and her servants brought in seven black boxes, each tied with a scarlet ribbon. The girls unwrapped the gifts and pulled out beautiful satin nightgowns, each the color of a ripe blackberry. Delighted, they all wore them that night to bed.
Orion didn’t care. He didn’t want a satin nightgown.
In the morning the palace woke to find the Midnight Queen and her entourage gone. Orion and his sisters emerged from their chambers and sat to breakfast, the girls still wearing their satin nightgowns, and discussed the strange and premature departure of their enigmatic guest.
Andromeda offered some wisdom as to why the queen had left, but as soon as she spoke something strange occurred. Her skin turned black and feathery, as did her hair. Her nose and mouth grew long and scarlet. Her neck stretched and her body shrank until Andromeda was no longer a lovely daughter, but a black swan with shining feathers.
The king and queen rushed to her side, and tried to speak to her, but Andromeda only honked back and flapped her wings in fear.
“Let me speak to her,” offered Nova. But as soon as Nova approached her swan sister and tried to use her animal speech, she, too, was transformed into a swan. The two black swans were skittish and frightened and soon took to the air, flying out the windows of the Great Hall together.
Everyone ran out to the balcony and watched the swans disappear into the morning light. “Where are they going?” cried the queen. “How will we ever find them?”
Stella opened her mouth, thinking she could add some insight into what direction her sisters had gone but as soon as she did, she too, turned into a swan and flew away.
“Stop this!” cried the king. “My children, you must refrain from using your talents. The Midnight Queen must have cursed you, and when you use your talents you transform into swans. I command you to not use your gifts until we find a way to bring your sisters back.”
The next few days were long and dark days at the castle. There was no singing, no dancing, and no joy. Everyone missed their three sisters, especially Orion.
Perhaps, he thought, if I turn into a swan, I could go and find my sisters and bring them back. Late one evening he went to the kitchen and cut up an apple in the shape of a rose. He held it in his hand, waiting to be transformed, but nothing happened. He had not been cursed. Orion didn’t know whether to feel relieved or neglected.
His four remaining sisters languished. Eventually they could not resist the temptation to use their talents, and one by one they turned into swans and flew away until only Orion was left. The palace had never seemed so dismal.
A year went by, but the king and queen seemed to age ten years. This troubled Orion and he became restless. To pass the time he took long rides on Venus’ horse. One day he heard strange sounds in the forest: metal against metal. He came to a cave at the foot of a hill. Outside the cave was an old man, dripping with sweat, pounding a hammer against red-hot metal. Then he took the metal and plunged it into a barrel of oil and the metal hissed as steam rose from the barrel.
Orion was mesmerized. “What is that?” he asked. “Are you making a great knife?”
The man looked up from his work, gazed at Orion and shook his head. “This is no knife. This is a sword.”
Orion inched closer. “What . . . is a sword?” he asked.
“It is an ancient weapon. There has not been a need for one for two centuries, but there is a need now, and for a man who can wield it.”
Orion frowned. “Is it used to cut up large melons?”
The man stopped pounding and stared at Orion. “It is used to kill.”
After that Orion kept his mouth shut. He watched the man work on the sword all through the day. When the sun set, Orion built a fire and watched the man work into the night. It was near midnight when the man finished. He laid it on his palms and presented it to Orion. “Test it. See how it feels.”
As Orion wrapped his fingers around the handle and felt the weight settle in his palm, he felt a quiver of excitement race up his arm and through his body. He rotated his wrist and watched the moonlight flash up the blade. He swung to the right, he swung to the left.
All of the sudden, Orion heard a loud roar. He looked up to see the old man coming at him with another sword raised high above his head. Orion crouched, closing his eyes and shielding himself with the new sword to keep from being cut in half by his attacker. The blow was deflected, but the man attacked again, clashing his sword against Orion’s. This time Orion stood his ground and fought back, using the sword as a weapon instead of a shield. The man kept striking, forcing Orion into the forest where they dodged tree trunks and fallen logs by the dim light of the moon. Orion was grateful for Luna’s dance lessons that helped him order his steps and keep his feet steady as he thrust and swung the blade. Soon he began to feel more natural and fluid, and the feel of the sword—the grip, balance, the weight—all felt so innate, so sublime, and it filled his heart with indescribable joy.
Orion grinned. He began to strike at his opponent with more confidence. He advanced instead of retreated. Then he took advantage of a hesitation made by the old man and flipped the man’s weapon from his grasp where the blade tip stuck into a thick over-hanging branch.
Breathing hard, the old man walked to the quivering sword and pulled it out of the branch. Orion steeled himself to continue the fight, but instead of engaging, the man bowed.
“You will do,” he said with a kind smile.
“While the world was at peace, she has grown in power.”
“Rat? What rat?”
“Just remember that weapons are not to provoke, but to defend,” the man said, guiding his sword back into its sheath. “They are not to make wrongs, but to correct them. Not to cause loss, but to recover that which was lost.”
Now that made more sense. Orion didn’t know anything about rats, but there was an evil queen he wouldn’t mind trying this sword out on.
“Good sir, may I ask your name?” Orion asked.
“Spinach,” said the man as he began packing up his tools. “Sir Spinach.”
“With all due respect, Sir Spinach, isn’t this a large sword for a rat?”
He shook his head. “It will barely suffice.”
“But Sir Spinach, what if I can’t find this rat that you speak of?”
“Oh, you will find her,” said the old man, lifting his satchel onto his shoulder, “And when you meet, you must kill her, for if you do not, she shall take over the world.” He then turned and disappeared into the cave.
Orion waved the sword around a few more times, enthralled by the feel of it. He realized he had never thanked the man, so he trotted after him into the cave, but the cave was not as deep as it had seemed and he soon found himself staring at a granite wall.
Orion looked at the new sword in his hand, marveling. He kissed the blade and rode home as fast as the horse could go, his heart bursting with joy.
He had found his true gift.
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
Author’s Note: The final post of Fairy Tales for Boys will be published tomorrow. Or maybe the day after that, depending on whether or not I have to take another member of my family to the hospital (my husband broke his ankle yesterday).
If you are enjoying Fairy Tales for Boys, please share with other quarantined friends!