Once upon a time there was a woman named Yetzel who didn’t care much for children or men and definitely did not want to live with either. Instead she dedicated herself to the study of sorcery and became a powerful witch. She lived alone in a small cottage, brewing potions in her kitchen and growing illegal plants in her garden. Though her career kept her stimulated, fulfilled, and busy, she would sometimes feel a surge of loneliness and wonder if maybe it wouldn’t be so bad having a child after all. It might be nice to have an obedient, quiet little girl to share her knowledge with and to pass on her wicked legacy. By the time she warmed up to the idea of having a child she was much too old to have a baby, and though a witch can do many magical things, she cannot make herself pregnant. Eventually she decided that if she couldn’t have her own, she would have to steal someone else’s.
. . . And the couple next door happened to be expecting.
She picked some spinach from her garden, made a salad, and set a spell on it to make it delicious but unsatisfying, so that the person who ate it would want more and more. She placed the salad into a basket, put on her best shawl, and walked to her neighbor’s home.
“Hello! I’m Yetzel, your sweet, innocent neighbor,” said the witch to the young husband when he opened the door. “I heard your wife was expecting, so I brought her some of my prized spinach. I don’t have very much, but I made the sacrifice hoping it would bring her some good.”
The husband and wife were touched by the woman’s kindness, and when she left the wife devoured the salad as if she hadn’t eaten for days. As soon as she finished, she begged her husband for more.
“But it would be rude to ask for more. Remember what the woman said? It is her most prized plant and she doesn’t have very much.”
“But I must have more or I shall die!” wept the wife.
The poor man didn’t know what to do, but he couldn’t bear to see his wife in so much distress. So late that night he snuck into his neighbor’s garden and pulled some spinach. His wife was so grateful that the husband felt justified, so the next night, when she asked him to go again, he didn’t even hesitate.
This time, however, he was caught.
“Thief! How dare you steal from me after I was so generous!” said the witch.
The man trembled in fear and embarrassment. “Forgive me, Yetzel! But my wife says she must have it or she shall die.”
“Is that so? Then we shall have to make a deal,” said the witch, for this was all part of her plan. “If this spinach is so important that your wife will truly die without it, promise to give me your child when it is born, in exchange for your wife’s life.”
Now, the poor man, although he was devoted, was not the brightest husband. He truly was convinced that if he didn’t get the spinach his wife would die (which she wouldn’t have) and he didn’t know his neighbor was a witch (which he couldn’t have), so he decided to make the bargain without his wife’s consent (which he shouldn’t have).
The man promised.
After that, Yetzel gave him all the spinach his wife desired, and by and by the woman gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby, whom of course they named Spinach.
A few days later the witch came to claim the child. The husband was forced to explain to his wife the shameful arrangement he had made with the witch, and his wife was so overcome with sadness and betrayal that she died right there of a broken heart.
“Ha! Ha! Ha!” laughed the witch. “This makes it so much easier!” She scooped up the baby in her arms and stole away into the night.
Yetzel took the baby far away and began the task of raising it. As with all first-time parents, she encountered some things she hadn’t expected.
First of all, Spinach was a boy. No matter, she thought. If she couldn’t make him into a great witch, she would make him into a great wizard. But as the months went by Spinach turned out to be much louder, much messier, and much more trouble than she expected. He knocked over her potions, he soiled her spell books, played with her frogs and snakes and let them escape, and he was constantly interrupting her when she was in deep, meditative thought.
When Spinach turned five years old Yetzel couldn’t stand it any longer. “If only there was a way to skip this child stage and train him when he is more grown-up and mature!”
This spawned a dreadful plan.
She locked the little boy in a tall tower in the middle of a desert and bricked up the entrance. She would bring him food and water for a decade or so, and once he had grown to a more manageable age, she would let him out and he would be her apprentice and carry on her wicked legacy.
At first the boy didn’t mind being locked in the tower. At least he was away from Mama Yetzel who was always yelling at him for one thing or another. But as the weeks passed, the boy languished. He had plenty of food and water from the witch, (for she would send it up to him via rope and pulley with a basket and then take the rope away with her), but he had no toys or books or friends to play with. To pass time he would count bricks or birds or clouds, but most of the day he just leaned on the window and wished he had someone to talk to.
Back in his cottage, Spinach’s father was also lonely, and tormented with grief and regret. He couldn’t forgive himself for being duped by his neighbor, whom by now he realized was a witch. He vowed to not cut his beard until he found his son. He journeyed near and far, telling his story to everyone who would listen, and asking them if they knew anything about the witch who had taken his precious little boy.
One day, when the boy was looking out his window at the vast desert, he saw a bearded man crossing the dunes.
“Hello! Hello!” the boy shouted, and the man looked up.
“Hello, little boy! What are you doing way up in that tower?”
“My mother is hiding me here until I grow up.”
“That is a strange thing for a mother to do,” said the man. “What is your name?”
The man knew that there could only one child on the earth with a name like that. “Spinach! I am your father!” he shouted and started dancing around in the sand. Spinach didn’t know he had a father, and didn’t know if he even wanted one or not, but he liked this funny dancing desert man and he laughed so hard he almost fell out of the window.
“How can I get you down?” asked the funny man. “Is there a door?”
“There is no door,” said Spinach. “I can’t ever come down, nor can you come up.”
But this father didn’t travel all around the globe to be stopped by a mere tower. He started to climb. It took him all day, but finally, with bloody fingers and skinned knees he reached the top and dropped over the window sill.
“I’m glad you came, because I have been very lonely,” said the boy. “But now we are both stuck up here.”
“We’ll make do,” said his father. “We are together again, and that is all that matters.”
The father told Spinach the origin of his birth and Spinach was overjoyed to learn that the mean witch was not his real mother. This man was loads more fun than she was, and he never got mad at Spinach for making a mess or being too loud. Instead, they made messes together and were loud together. And every few days the witch would come and bring food and water which they always shared.
“Too bad we don’t have that rope,” said the father one day after the witch left, taking her rope with her.
“We have your beard,” said Spinach who was cleverer than his father. “If you don’t cut it, then someday we can use it as our rope.”
The father thought this was an excellent idea and was proud to have such an intelligent boy.
Over the course of the next few weeks the boy asked the witch for greater portions of food, and the witch obliged, knowing that if he was hungrier, he must be growing, and the sooner he grew the sooner she could use him as a proper apprentice. Meanwhile, the father told his son stories about his travels and the people he’d met. He taught his son to read and write and they sang songs together and created stories on the walls of the tower. On windy days they made kites and flew them out the window. They roasted marshmallows at the fireplace and told ghost stories. They had arm wrestling matches and jumping contests, and all the while the father’s beard grew and grew and grew.
On Spinach’s 15th birthday, they decided to make their escape. The father cut his beard and braided it into a strong rope. That night they tied the rope to the pully, climbed down, and silently slipped away under the desert stars.
The next day, when Yetzel came to bring food, she noticed a long rope coming down from the pulley. She climbed the rope and found the tower much different than when she left Spinach there 10 years before. There was a checkboard carved into the table. There were stories written on the walls. Most telling of all, there were pictures scrawled on the floor of a boy holding hands with a long-bearded man.
Yetzel was furious. Not because someone ran off with her boy that she didn’t particularly want, but because she had been fooled by a fool.
Spinach and his father located a nice place to live next to a blue lake where there was a good school that Spinach could attend. He was very bright and got along with his classmates well. He was so happy that he barely remembered the witch at all, and looked back at his time in the tower with his dad as a happy memory.
Then, one dark night there was a knock at the door. When they opened it, there stood Yetzel, holding a large staff, her bright black eyes blazing with anger.
“You rat!” she said, pointing to Spinach’s father. “How dare you steal away the child that I stole away from you! We made a deal, and you shall pay for this!” She pointed her staff at the man and it began to spark with magic blue light. But just as she began her incantation, Spinach grabbed a mirror from the wall to shield his father. The witch’s spell hit the mirror and bounced back at her. Spinach and his dad watched in astonishment as the witch’s body shriveled and shrank until all that was left of her was a large, black rat.
“Ahhh!” squeaked the rat. “You are more trouble than you are worth! Next time I shall steal a girl baby!!”
Spinach and his father lived happily together for a long time after that, and eventually Spinach got a good job working in the castle and married a lovely young woman. They had many children which made Spinach’s father a very joyful and content old man.
And they always had rat traps set.