Once upon a time there was a group of old women who liked to get together and knit in the village square, and while they knitted, they bragged about their children.
“My daughter makes beautiful dresses,” said the tailor’s wife.
“My son can grind wheat faster than any man in the kingdom!” said the miller’s wife.
The baker’s wife, who often felt inferior in front of her friends and wanted to prove that her child was just as good as theirs said, “My son can bake loaves of dough into bricks of gold.”
Well, none of the other women could top that, and the baker’s wife felt satisfied, even if it was a complete lie. Little did she know that her statement was overheard by a servant from the castle.
“He can bake loaves of dough in to bricks of gold?!” exclaimed the Queen when the servant told her. “Bring him to the castle at once!”
The young man and his mother were brought before the queen. “Is it true you can bake dough into bricks of gold?”
“Uh . . . no,” said the boy, with a puzzled glance at his mother.
“He is just being modest,” said the baker’s wife. “Go on, tell the queen the truth, son.”
“I am telling the truth. I don’t know how to bake dough into gold.”
“Well,” said the queen. “We shall see about that.”
She put the boy in the royal kitchen with a huge pile of dough. “I want all of this dough made into bricks of gold by morning or we will chop off your head.” And then she bolted the door.
The young man sat on the bench, feeling very confused as to how he came to be in this dreadful predicament. After all, was it even possible to make dough into gold? Did they share any similar chemical components? He looked around to see if there was a way he could escape, but escaping seemed just as likely as turning things into gold.
“I can turn anything into anything,” said a small voice.
The young man, whose name was Alastair, looked around. “Who said that?”
“Me,” said the voice, and a black rat jumped up onto the table.
The boy frowned. “I don’t think it’s very sanitary for you to be in the kitchen.”
“Does it matter? You don’t want to turn the dough into food to eat, you want to turn it into gold. And I can help you do that.”
Alastair laughed. He laughed and laughed and laughed.
“Stop laughing,” squeaked the rat.
“First of all,” said the boy, regaining his composure, “why are you so excited to help me? What’s in it for you?”
“Because we both need something. You need to turn this dough into gold to save your life, and I need a baby that I can raise to be my apprentice and carry on my wicked legacy.”
The boy shrugged. “I can’t help you. I don’t have a baby brother or sister. I don’t own a baby, and I can’t give birth to a baby. Maybe you should go ask a girl.”
“Stop being difficult,” said the rat. “If you make this dough into bricks of gold, the queen plans on having you wed her daughter, the princess.”
Alastair narrowed his eyes. “Is she a baby?”
“No, you imbecile! She is a perfectly beautiful young woman, only a year younger than you.”
“Is that so?” said the boy as he pulled up a stool and leaned on the table. “Tell me more about her.”
“She’s everything you ever dreamed of, with hair like the sunrise and lips like the sunset.”
“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s bake some gold!”
The rat held up her paws. “Not so fast. Before I help you, you must promise to give me your first-born child, if it’s a girl.”
“And if it’s a boy?” asked Alastair.
“You can keep it.”
“You got yourself a deal!” The arrangement sounded perfect to Alastair, who didn’t care much for babies, and if he did ever have a baby, he would much rather have a boy than a girl anyway. He shook hands with the rat, and together they began pulling off dough and placing it in the bread pans.
In the morning when the queen unbolted the door, she saw the young man sitting at the table with a confident smile on his face. Stacked next to him was a huge pyramid of golden bricks.
The queen clapped her hands. “Marvelous!” she exclaimed.
Alastair was then introduced to the princess, whom he thought was far more lovely than the rat had described, not to mention affectionate, witty, and smart. They married, and their first year of marriage was so blissful that Alastair forgot all about his promise to the black rat.
In time the princess became pregnant. Alastair was filled with excitement and anticipation. On the day of the birth he was the first to hold his new baby girl.
He and his wife were so happy to have this new little princess, and together they took care of her; holding her, bathing her, and making silly faces so she would smile. Alastair cherished his little daughter and couldn’t remember a time that he had ever been happier.
A few weeks later, as the sun peeped over the distant mountains, the princess shook Alastair awake. “Alastair! Get up! There is a rat in our room! Kill it!”
“Yes, yes, wake up and kill the rat, you silly boy!” sang the rat. “But you won’t be able to because we made a bargain.”
Alastair sat up in bed. “You,” he said.
“Yes! It is I! Ha! Ha! Ha! And I know that you’ve been blessed with a beautiful baby girl, which means you owe me something.”
Alastair dashed to the crib and stood in front of the baby. “Never,” he said.
“Alastair?” asked the princess, narrowing her eyes. “What is going on?”
Alastair didn’t know what to tell his wife. He realized now that making a bargain with the rat had been a huge mistake. He was younger then, and he didn’t realize how deeply he would love his baby girl. The thought of this dirty rat taking away his precious child and breaking the heart of his wife made his body tremble with anger. Deal or no deal, there was no chance he would let this rat win.
“Leave this castle at once,” demanded Alastair.
“‘Leave this castle at once,’” mimicked the rat. “A deal is a deal,” she said. “And a magical deal is more binding than any other.”
The princess panicked. “What deal? Alastair, what did you do?”
“I made a deal with this rat that she could have my first-born child . . . if it was a girl.”
“YOU DID WHAAAATT???!!” The princess leaped out of bed and started throwing shoes at the rat. “Get out! Get away from my baby!” she screamed.
The rat dodged all of the shoes with ease until the princess had thrown every shoe in her closet and was panting in exhaustion.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” said the rat. “I realize this must be an unpleasant surprise. But a magical deal cannot be broken.” She held out her greedy black paws. “The baby, please. Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of her.”
The princess crumpled into a sobbing heap, but Alastair stood his ground. “There must be another way. Something else I can do for you. I am a prince now. I can give you anything you want. Gold, jewels, silk . . . anything!”
The rat laughed. “I made gold bricks for you out of bread dough. You think I can’t make those things if I want them? What I can’t make is a baby, and we made a deal.”
Alastair reached for a sword and swung it at the rat, but the sword bounced off of her, as if she were protected by an invisible shield.
“Remember, a magical bargain cannot be broken,” said the rat smugly.
“Then we shall make another bargain,” said Alastair.
The rat cocked her head. “Go on.”
“Give me a task and three days to accomplish it. If I can’t, the baby is yours. If I can, you must leave and never return.”
The rat laughed. “Silly boy! You are simply prolonging the inevitable,” she said. “But I do love to make a deal. . .” She caressed her whiskers thoughtfully. After a few moments a sly smile appeared on her face, showing her pointed, yellow teeth. “Very well. Here is your task: you have three days to guess my name. I will visit you on the morning of each new day. If you can guess my name by the third day, you may keep your baby.”
Alastair frowned. “You could ask me to slay a giant or kill a dragon, and you want me to guess your name?”
“If it sounds too easy than we can stick with our original arrangement.”
“You are a dirty rat,” he said, and agreed to the bargain.
Alastair wasted no time. He thought of sending out a proclamation to the kingdom, offering a reward for anyone who knew the name of a talking rat, but the princess pointed out that first, everyone would think he was crazy, and second, he’d probably get hundreds of imposters who would waste their precious time with normal, everyday rats. So they decided it was up to the two of them.
The next morning, a servant brought breakfast into the royal chamber and placed it on the table where the prince and princess were compiling a list of names. The servant bowed. “Anything else, Your Highness?” he asked.
Alastair lifted his teacup and took a sip. “No, thank you, Spinach,” he said.
A few moments later the rat appeared at the window. “Do you know my name?” she asked, blinking her bright black eyes.
“Katrina,” said Alastair.
“Sylvia,” said the princess.
“Marilyn,” said Alastair.
Alastair and the princess tried dozens of names, but the rat shook her head at every one.
“Time’s up!” announced the rat, and she crawled out the window.
The next morning the servant brought in breakfast to the prince and princess while they prepared a whole new list of names.
“Will there be anything else, Your Highness?” asked the servant.
“No, thank you, Spinach,” said Alastair. And the servant departed.
Just as before, the rat appeared at the window and asked, “Do you know my name?”
“Gertrude,” said the princess.
“Grogda,” said Alastair.
“Forcythia,” said the princess.
And just as before, they read through their entire list of names until the rat said, “Time’s up! One day left!” she crowed, and crawled out the window.
The princess was beside herself with grief. “Alastair, what will we do? We can’t let that horrible creature take our baby!”
Alastair wiped her tears and promised that he would find out what the rat’s name was. That night he snuck into the forest and asked the animal creatures if they knew of a black rat. But of course, Alastair did not speak animal, and the animals, being merely animals and not enchanted witches, did not speak human. So that was fruitless.
Depressed, hopeless, and out of ideas, Alastair returned to the castle. He tossed and turned all night, for he knew that on the morrow he must surrender his beloved baby.
In the morning the servant brought breakfast to the couple, who were tearfully making their last list of names.
“Will there be anything else, Your Highness?” asked the servant.
“No, thank you, Spinach,” said Alastair.
But instead of leaving, the servant hesitated. “If you don’t mind me asking, sire, you and the princess seem very distressed.”
“We are distressed. If you do not laugh, I will tell you why. In a few moments a rat is going to appear in that window and ask us to guess her name. If we cannot guess her name then she will take our sweet baby.”
“A talking rat, sire?”
“Yes. You probably think I am crazy.”
“Oh no, sire, I don’t, for I once knew a talking rat.”
“YOU DID?” asked the couple at once.
“Yes. She actually locked me in a tower in the desert when I was five years old and I had to stay there for 10 years. She wasn’t a rat then, of course, she was a witch. Luckily my father saved me and we escaped, but then she followed us to our home where she tried to turn my father into a rat but her spell reflected off a mirror and struck her instead.”
Alastair and the princess stared at Spinach, their mouths agape. “Well, what is her name?”
Spinach bit his lip and looked at the ceiling. “It was a long time ago, and it was a very strange name, and to remember it I had to rhyme it with something. Oh, I remember, it rhymed with . . . with . . . pretzel.”
Just then, they could hear the scratching of something outside the window. Alastair told Spinach to hide under the bed, but Spinach couldn’t fit under the bed, so Alastair told him to crouch down on the side of the bed furthest from the window, so as not to be seen by the rat.
The rat appeared, a smug smile on her face. “Do you know my name?” she said.
Alastair and the princess looked at each other and swallowed.
“Wetzel?” said Alastair.
“Snetzel?” said the princess.
“Fetzel?” said Alastair.
The rat placed her paws on her hips and narrowed her beady eyes. She didn’t like where this was going.
“Zetzel?” said the princess.
“I know!” said Alastair, his face brightening. “It’s Chetzel!”
“Enough of this foolishness! Don’t you think it is time you gave up? You have one more guess!”
The princess looked at Alastair, who glanced at Spinach, who had changed position and was lying on his back with his legs together and both arms stretched up at diagonal angles.
Alastair looked back at the rat. “Could it be . . . Yetzel?”
The rat screamed like she had been tossed in a firepit. She hopped up and down. She tore out handfuls of her fur. She whacked her head against the stone wall. “You cheated! You cheated!” She was in such a rage that she hurled herself out of the window, and was never seen again . . . in that kingdom, anyway.
Alastair, the princess, and their baby lived happily ever after.
And Spinach was knighted.