The Rumpelstiltskin Problem

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The Rumpelstiltskin Problem Page 2

by Vivian Vande Velde

  Rumpelstiltskin held his hand out and Siobhan gave him the buckle. He pulled a stool up to the spinning wheel and began to spin. All night long he spun, until by morning there was no straw left, only piles of gauzy gold.

  "Well, thank you," Siobhan said. "I'm sure the king is likely to be pleased."

  In fact, the king was ecstatic. Rumpelstiltskin, lurking about the corners of the palace later that morning, heard his cries of amazement and delight.

  That night, Rumpelstiltskin once more went to Siobhan's room. Actually, it was a bigger, finer room, and she was wearing an even richer and more elegant gown than the one the king had given her the day before. "So, he liked the gold?" Rumpelstiltskin asked Siobhan, without even greeting her.

  "Very much," Siobhan said. "He said he never suspected I could spin so much straw into gold. I think he's rather too trusting for a king, but he is cute. He gave me a great hug and called me a treasure."

  "Well, no wonder," Rumpelstiltskin said. "He hopes you'll provide him with endless treasure."

  "No, I don't think that's it," Siobhan started to say, but Rumpelstiltskin interrupted her, saying, "Because I heard him say: 'Let her spin this second roomful of straw into gold, or tomorrow she shall be stoned to death."'

  "That doesn't sound like him at all," Siobhan said.

  "But there is all this straw in here," Rumpelstiltskin pointed out.

  Siobhan bit her lip anxiously.

  "I'll tell you what," Rumpelstiltskin said. "Give me the clasp that holds the collar of your gown, and I will spin this straw into gold also."

  "This gold clasp?" Siobhan asked doubtfully, fingering the exquisite but tiny object.

  "That very one," Rumpelstiltskin said, for he had something much, much more valuable and tasty on his mind.

  Siobhan unfastened the clasp and once more watched Rumpelstiltskin work to make straw into gold. "You're too kind," she murmured when he had finished.

  "Not at all," Rumpelstiltskin answered.

  And he meant it.

  That night, he found her in a luxurious room, and she was wearing a gown that was made of gold cloth woven from the gold that he had spun from straw.

  Hardly able to hide his glee, Rumpelstiltskin said, "I hear the king has said you must spin this new roomful of straw into gold or he will burn you at the stake."

  "I think you must have heard wrong," Siobhan said. "If the king was that greedy, he would never have given me this dress. I'm sure he's pleased enough with the gold. In fact, he is a kind and gentle man, and we have spent the last days talking and getting to know each other, and he has asked me to marry him." She smiled in pleasure and shyly added, "And I have said yes."

  "Well, congratulations," Rumpelstiltskin said. His plan was so close to completion that he could practically taste that baby. He said, "But why shouldn't the king give you a dress of gold, when he thinks you can spin him all the gold he could ever need? And as far as not burning you at the stake, look out the window."

  Siobhan looked. Her eyes widened with horror when she saw that there was a stake in the ground right below her window, with bundles of sticks strewn about it, and she had no way of knowing that it was Rumpelstiltskin who had set that stake up to look as though the king was preparing for an execution.

  "What will you give me," Rumpelstiltskin asked, "to spin this roomful of straw into gold for you?"

  "I can give you this whole dress," Siobhan said, "if you give me a chance to change into one of the others the king has given me."

  "Why would I want your dress?" Rumpelstiltskin sneered.

  "It has much more gold to it than the belt buckle or the clasp I gave you before," Siobhan pointed out.

  Rumpelstiltskin shrugged his rocky shoulders. "I have enough gold."

  "I would have thought you had enough gold before," Siobhan said. "How about this ruby necklace the king gave me?"

  Rumpelstiltskin shook his head.

  "Or this diamond engagement ring?"

  Again Rumpelstiltskin shook his head.

  "Well, then, what?"

  Rumpelstiltskin stroked his chin, which had warts like pebbles. Slowly, as though he couldn't make up his mind, he said, "I don't know..." while—all the while—all he wanted was to shout: YOUR BABY! I WANT TO EAT YOUR FIRSTBORN BABY! Instead, he said, "I'll spin the straw for you tonight, and let you know later what you must pay me."

  Siobhan sighed and said, "All right," and sat down on the floor by the spinning wheel.

  Foolish human! Rumpelstiltskin thought. He smacked his lips and set to work spinning.

  By dawn, Rumpelstiltskin had spun this third room full of straw into gold, but he did not tell Siobhan what its cost would be.

  That day, the king announced his betrothal to Siobhan, and still Rumpelstiltskin did not step forward to declare what Siobhan owed him.

  Apparently Siobhan was much cleverer than Rumpelstiltskin had first thought, and had been paying much better attention than he had ever suspected while he spun, for in the coming days she began to spin straw into gold on her own, and still Rumpelstiltskin waited.

  The marriage took place, and time passed, and it was announced that the queen was with child, and even then Rumpelstiltskin did not reveal himself.

  He waited until the child was born: a prince, an heir to the kingdom. And then—only then—did Rumpelstiltskin go to the queen.

  "Remember that you have not paid me for that last roomful of gold?" he said to her as she rocked the tiny baby. Scrumptious, Rumpelstiltskin thought. That baby smells scrumptious.

  "Of course," Siobhan said with a generous smile. "Have you made up your mind, then?"

  "I want the baby," Rumpelstiltskin announced.

  Siobhan stopped rocking. She looked into his eyes and knew to not even ask if he was joking. "Take me instead," she offered.

  "I don't want you," Rumpelstiltskin said. "I want baby rump roast."

  Siobhan shuddered, but did not cry or beg. "You took all the hours of the night to spin the straw into gold," she said. "Therefore you owe me all the hours of this day before I give you the child."

  One day wouldn't toughen the meat, Rumpelstiltskin decided, so—generously, he thought—he agreed.

  He wasn't, however, generous enough to give a moment beyond sunset, and he was back at the palace the instant the sun dipped below the horizon. This time, the king was in the room with Siobhan and the baby. Rumpelstiltskin sniffed the air, to see if there might be soldiers hiding behind the tapestries that hung on the walls. There was a strong scent of troll, which told Rumpelstiltskin that it was time for his yearly bath, but he could smell no other humans in the room, just the scent of the king, Queen Siobhan, and the sweet, enticing, delicious aroma of baby.

  Rumpelstiltskin finished tying his bib around his neck and said, "Hand it over."

  "How about," the king suggested smoothly, "a deal?"

  "Don't want you, don't want your missus," Rumpelstiltskin said, "just hand the baby chops over."

  But the king said something intriguing. He said, "Double or nothing?"

  "Beg pardon?" Rumpelstiltskin asked.

  The king and his queen exchanged a nervous look, but the king said in a steady voice, "We propose a riddle. If we guess your name, you go away and leave us alone and promise never to bother another human family. If we don't guess your name, you get to have our second-born child as well as our firstborn."

  Rumpelstiltskin was so excited, he was practically drooling. He couldn't lose. First of all, there was no way these two humans could ever know his name. Second of all, even if somehow they managed to guess correctly, all he had to do was claim they had gotten it wrong. So he said, "All right. Guess away."

  Siobhan closed her eyes in what could have been relief or dismay, but when she opened them what she said, calmly and clearly, was, "Is your name Rumpelstiltskin?"

  Now how in the world had they ever guessed that? Rumpelstiltskin wondered. But trolls' skin is rocky, so his expression never changed as he said, "Wrong. Too bad. Hand
over the kiddie cutlets."

  But even as he put his scaly arms out to take the baby, another scaly arm pulled back one of the tapestries, and out stepped—of all trolls—his own brother. "Your name is too Rumpelstiltskin," his brother said. "You've lost the riddle. No human baby for you now or ever."

  Rumpelstiltskin felt as though he'd had dinner yanked from his very mouth. He could feel his taste buds quiver. He stamped his foot and howled, "What are you doing? What's the matter with you? I want that baby!" He stamped his foot again, and a thin crack appeared on the tiles, for trolls, being creatures of the earth, are very powerful.

  "Don't you be pulling any of your nonsense with me," his brother warned, shaking a boulder-like finger at him. "I went into your cave looking for you, and I found one of my Myrna's ears under your dining room table."

  "Coincidence!" Rumpelstiltskin protested and stamped his foot again. The crack burst open, miles deep from the strength of a troll's rage, and Rumpelstiltskin tipped head over heels into the hole he himself had made.

  His brother, perhaps feeling some last twinge of family loyalty despite the unfortunate incident with Myrna, grabbed for him. Rumpelstiltskin dangled for a long, long moment.

  But then his leg broke off in his brother's stony grip and Rumpelstiltskin continued to fall down, down, down with a howl that took a long time to fade away.

  "Oops!" his brother said. He turned and saw that the king was fanning his wife, who—though she kept a strong grip on the baby—looked close to fainting. Rumpelstiltskin's brother wondered if this had anything to do with the leg he was still holding.

  So he ate it.

  II. Straw into Gold

  Once upon a time, in the days before Social Security or insurance companies, there lived a miller and his daughter, Della, who were fairly well-off and reasonably happy until the day their mill burned down.

  Suddenly they had nothing except the clothes they were wearing: no money, nor any way to make money, nor any possibility of ever getting money again unless they came up with a plan.

  Now the miller was very good at milling, and he was fairly good at being a father, but at planning he was no good at all.

  His plan was this: They would sit by the side of the road and wait for someone who looked rich to pass by. Then the miller would announce: "My daughter can spin straw into gold. If you give us three gold pieces, she will spin a whole barnful of straw into gold for you." If the rich people were interested—and the miller pointed out that they couldn't help but be interested—he would then say that his daughter's magic only worked by moonlight. "You must leave her alone—completely undisturbed—all night long. And by dawn all of the straw will be spun into gold."

  "I don't understand this plan," Della said. "I'm not very good at spinning, even wool, and I have no idea how—"

  "No, no," the miller interrupted, "you don't understand."

  "That's what I just said." Della sighed.

  "Listen," the miller explained, "the plan, of course, is for the two of us to take our fee of three gold pieces and run away during the night."

  "That's dishonest," Della pointed out.

  "So it is," her father admitted. "But we will take those three gold pieces and rebuild our mill. Once the mill is working again, we will save all our money until we can repay the people we've tricked."

  Della still didn't like this plan, but since she herself had no experience beyond milling and being a daughter, she agreed.

  So Della and her father sat by the side of the road, and the first rich person to pass by was the richest person in the land: he was the king.

  "Oh, dear," Della said, recognizing the royal crest on the door of the carriage, "maybe we should wait—"

  But if the miller was not good at making plans, he was even worse at changing plans once they were made. Standing in the middle of the road, he called out, "My daughter can spin straw into gold. If you give us three gold pieces, she will spin a whole barnful of straw into gold for you."

  The king motioned for the driver to stop the horses. "You," he said, leaning out of the window. "Both of you, come closer." The king had clothes of red satin and brocade, sewn with gold thread. He wore more rings than he had fingers, and he had a dark wig, which was all thick ringlets around his pale face. He put a silk handkerchief to his nose, for Della and her father still smelled of smoke from their burned-down mill. "What did you say?" he demanded.

  The miller wasn't sure if this question meant the king was interested and he should now explain about the moonlight and the being left alone, or if it meant the king was slightly deaf and hadn't heard the first part. The miller decided he'd better repeat himself. He raised his voice and enunciated clearly. "My daughter can spin straw into gold. If you give us three gold pieces, she will spin a whole barnful of straw into gold for you."

  "If she can spin straw into gold," the king asked, "then why are the two of you dressed in filthy rags?"

  "Ah," the miller said. "Well..." Once again he had been all prepared to explain about the moonlight and the being left alone, and now that he couldn't say that, he had no idea what to say. "Why are we dressed in rags?" he repeated. "That's a very good question. That's an excellent question."

  The king dabbed at his nose, then let his handkerchief drop into the mud by the road, since he only ever used a handkerchief once. He pulled out a new one.

  "Our mill burned down," Della explained.

  "Yes," the miller agreed. "Including the spinning wheel. And the straw."

  "Hmmm," the king said. "Very well. You may follow the carriage to the castle. You will be provided with your three gold pieces, a spinning wheel, and straw." He dropped his second handkerchief without having used it at all and motioned for the driver to get the horses moving.

  The miller nudged his daughter as they started down the road after the carriage. "See," he said. "I told you the plan would work."

  "Yes," Della said, "so you did." But she was still worried.

  And rightly so. For when they got to the castle, the plan began to fall apart.

  The king insisted that Della work at her spinning in the castle itself instead of in the barn.

  "But," the miller protested, "she needs to work her magic at night, by the light of the moon."

  "Fine," the king said. "The rooms on the second floor have windows to let in the moonlight."

  The miller gulped, since it would be harder to get Della away if she was up on the second floor. He tried again. "But if anybody interrupts Della while she's working her magic, the magic will reverse itself and all the gold she's spun will turn back into straw."

  "We'll lock her in the room to make sure nobody interrupts her," the king said.

  Della gave her father a warning nudge before he could say anything else to make matters even worse.

  "And of course," the king said, "if she fails to spin this straw into gold, I will have her head chopped off." To the servants he said, "Lock this man away for the night so he doesn't try to escape." As two of the largest servants took the miller by the arms, the king told him, "Come back tomorrow, and I will give you your three gold pieces or your daughter's head."

  "But ... but..." the miller started, but before he could think of anything to say, he was dragged out of the room.

  Leaving Della, for the first time in her life, on her own.

  The king had her led up to a room that was as big as the entire mill had been. Servants brought in a spinning wheel, and then load after load after load after load of straw until the whole room was filled with straw, except for the area around the spinning wheel.

  How am I ever going to get out of this? Della thought. She hoped to slip out of the room while the servants were making their deliveries, but someone was always watching her. Then, after the king's guards locked her in, she tried to get the door open with her hairpin, the way heroines in stories always do, but in the end all she had was a bent hairpin. She couldn't even climb out the window, which was too narrow to pass through and very high up. And even i
f she did get out—what about her father?

  She kicked the spinning wheel, which made her feel a little bit better but not much.

  The servants hadn't even given her anything to eat, and now as the room got darker and darker until the only light was the moonlight coming through her prison window, Della added dinner to the list of meals she'd missed that day.

  Sitting on the hard floor, the last thing in the world she intended to do was to start crying, but that's exactly what she did.

  After a while—after a long while—she used her sleeve to rub her eyes and nose, since she didn't have a handkerchief, silk or otherwise. From behind her came the sound of someone clearing his throat discreetly. Out of the corner of her eye, Della saw that whoever was behind her was offering her a handkerchief.

  Without turning around, Della tried to work out exactly what she would say. "You see," she started, "actually crying is necessary for the magic ... Tears, tears are the lubricant for the spinning wheel ... but it only works if I'm totally alone, and since you were watching, I won't be able to do the spell again until—" At this point, she did turn around, and she stopped talking midexplanation.

  She'd been expecting to see the king or one of his servants. Instead, crouched beside her was a young man who was obviously not even human. In fact, he was an elf. Tall and slender, with pointy ears, he'd been listening very attentively, if somewhat quizzically.

  "Well, that doesn't make a lot of sense," he told her, but then he smiled, and she saw that he was handsome in a strange, otherworldly way. He added, "But I do admire your quick thinking."

  "Who are you?" Della gasped in surprise. "What do you want? How did you get in here?"

  The young elf paused a moment to consider, then answered in the order she'd asked: "Rumpelstiltskin. I heard you crying and came to see what was the matter. Sideways between the particles."

  "What?" Della asked.

  The elf raised his voice slightly. "Rumpelstiltskin. I heard you crying and—"

  "No," Della said, "I mean... sideways?"

  Rumpelstiltskin nodded. "The world of humans and the world of magic exist side by side." He illustrated by holding his hands out, his long, slender fingers spread, then he put his hands together, intertwining his fingers. "So that we're taking up the space that you're not"—he was watching her skeptically as if suspecting that she wasn't getting this, which she wasn't—"and vice versa."


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